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Ajka Alumina Plant (Redsludge Disaster)

 


On October 4, 2010, a dam wall at the Ajkai alumina plant in Ajka, Hungary, collapsed; freeing about a million cubic metres (35 million cubic feet) of liquid waste, called “red mud”.  The mud was released as a 1–2 m (3–7 ft) wave, flooding several nearby localities. At least four people died, and 123 people were injured. About 40 square kilometres (15 square miles) of land were initially affected, and there were concerns that the contamination could affect the Rába and Danube rivers.

The “red mud” that caused the accident is a waste product of the Bayer process for purifying the mineral bauxite into alumina, a form of aluminium oxide. The mud contains most of the impurities in the original bauxite; the characteristic red colour comes from hydrated iron(III) oxide, which is the main component, but it also contains titanium and vanadium compounds along with smaller amounts of other heavy metals. The mud, which is highly alkaline when it is first produced, is stored in large open-air ponds; there is thought to be about 30 million tonnes of red mud stored around the Ajkai Timföldgyár plant. According to a press release by MAL, the mud had the following chemical percentage makeup:

Material Percentage amount Notes
Fe2O3 (iron-oxide) 40-45% Gives the red colour of the mud
Al2O3 (aluminium oxide) 10-15%
SiO2 (silicon dioxide) 10-15% Present as sodium or calcium-alumino-silicate
CaO (calcium oxide) 6-10%
Tio2 (titanium dioxide) 4-5%
Na2 O (bounded sodium oxide) 5-6%

It was not initially clear how the containment at the mud pond had been breached, although the accident came after a particularly wet summer in Hungary, as in other parts of central Europe. Police have seized documents from the Ajkai Timföldgyár plant, although a spokesman for Hungarian Alumina Production and Trading (MAL Magyar Alumínium Termel? és Kereskedelmi Zrt.), the company that operates the plant, said the last inspection of the pond had shown “nothing untoward”. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán said human error—not flooding—likely caused the spill. The series of ponds responsible for the spill were once owned by the government, but have since been privatized, raising questions about whether profits were put before safety.


Executive Summary from the Kolontar Report

Regarding the spatial extent, duration and severity of impact, the dam break at 12:25 pm on 04. 10. 2010 and the red mud disaster in its wake turned out to be the greatest environmental crisis ever of Hungary and of the whole region. Th e spilt slurry reached the municipalities of Devecser, Kolontár, Somlóvásárhely, Somlójen?, Tüskevár, Apácatorna and Kisberzseny. The red mud contaminated the valleys of the Torna creek and the Marcal river, almost reaching the river Rába. Th rough the Torna, Marcal, Rába and the Moson branch of the Danube, the alkaline slurry entered the Danube, causing destruction in all the aff ected waters. Along the Torna and the impacted section of Marcal, practically all aquatic life was destroyed.

The disaster left 10 people dead and almost 150 injured, including local residents and the participants in the rescue operations.

The spilt mud and alkaline slurry polluted about 1,000 acres of land. Th e amount of the emitted pollutants was about 0.9–1 million cubic meters.

The fact that the devastation wrought by the dam break signifi cantly exceeded the expected impact as specifi ed in the disaster management plan can be accounted for in
physical terms by the exceedingly large water content of the slurry stored in Basin X, and  from a chemical perspective by the alkalinity of the spilt liquid, which approached pH 13. Th e relatively high concentration of metals (arsenic, mercury, etc.) in the pollutant mix has also presented further health and environmental problems.

The Bayer process is globally the most widespread method of producing aluminium, and leads to the formation of red mud practically everywhere it is used. Currently, no economically viable and efficient solutions are available for the recovery of this slurry or tailings-like material. It is most often deposited (dumping it in the sea or in reservoirs surrounded by dams). Attempts have been made to find ways of recovering the material: red mud is used both as a raw material or an additive e.g. in manufacturing bricks, road construction and soil improvement. Furthermore, the technology for extracting metals is practically available but it is too costly. In an international context, the trend is shifting away from wet disposal technologies towards dry disposal, which poses lower risk. (Dry disposal was used in Mosonmagyaróvár until production was discontinued there.) Th e alkalinity of the deposited slurry is typically lower internationally than it is in Hungary. On the other hand, the dry technology about to be temporarily introduced in Ajka, a technology which involves blending in power plant gypsum, has not yet been implemented at an industrial level anywhere.

Following this unprecedented accident the authorities responded with the expected rapidity and decisiveness, but not always efficiently in the defence of human health, the environment and material assets impacted by the disaster or at risk. One reason for the fact that intervention was not efficient enough was lack of information (local residents and participants in the rescue operations were not informed as to the composition and pH value of the red mud, the biological effect of the slurry, the list of materials to be used in restoration and whether they were available). Th e defective communication structure was a further reason (crucial information on environmental health issues was published with a delay of several days, with significant initial inaccuracies). As a result, for several days the people impacted were on several occasions forced to make decisions potentially influencing the rest of their lives based on conflicting information (e.g. “the red mud is not harmful” vs. “the red mud is toxic and/or radioactive”). Th e deficiencies of governmental information characterising the first days after the accident were primarily mitigated by non-governmental organisations (Greenpeace, Clean Air Working Group, etc.), as they were the sources of communication regarding measurement data and useful health advice.

The red mud contained chromium, mercury, lead and nickel contaminants several times the limit values for ground water and drinking water, also exceeding intervention levels no longer in force. The majority of tests indicated arsenic concentration levels beyond the limits values defined for soil and sewage sludge.

In the first few days, public authorities and institutions stated, citing test results obtained decades earlier, that the composition of the red mud poses no significant health risk or environmental hazard. In the first week of damage control, the population received no factual information about either the potential radioactive impact of the pollutants or the health consequences of airborne dust pollution. Th e long-term effects of soil pollution on the environment and agricultural production were not communicated to residents until February 2011. Official communications involving conflicting and often unsubstantiated information was a constant feature of the remediation process.

At the same time, the first measurements made by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences clarified what environmental authorities had managed to ignore for years: “based on analysing samples taken at different locations, the reservoir spillage takes pH values in the range 11 to 14. Consequently, the red mud should be considered as an environmentally hazardous substance.”

***

Possibly the most important statement of the Kolontár Report is that all Hungarian authorities with a role in licensing and monitoring the accident-stricken red mud reservoir had committed errors.

  • The Central Transdanubian Environmental, Nature Protection and Water Management Inspectorate had endorsed the classification of the deposited material as non-hazardous waste, thus significantly relaxing requirements on disposal and subsequent monitoring.
  • The authorities endorsed the uncorroborated disaster management plan handed in by MAL Co. Ltd.
  • The Inspectorate failed to engage the competent District Mining Inspectorate in the licensing process.
  • The notary of Ajka had prohibited the depositing of hazardous waste in the reservoir, but failed to take steps when hazardous waste was in fact deposited in the area.
  • Although the licensing of mining waste deposits has been the competence of the Mine Supervision since 2008, the competent District Mining Inspectorate did not check the structure of the disposal site for technological compliance, and failed to enforce use of the best available technology with regard to disposal (conversion to dry technology).
  • None of the authorities substantially considered the risk of a dam break.
  • When the privatisation contract was concluded, IPPC and BAT requirements were not taken into consideration. Neither was compliance with these requirements subsequently enforced in an exhaustive manner by either the environmental or the construction authorities.

Regarding the occurrence and the severity of accident, a decisive factor was the Hungarian authorities’ failure to treat the red mud deposited together with the slurry as hazardous waste in the course of the licensing and inspection process, even though the alkalinity of the material in the reservoir that was later damaged would have justifi ed this. Licensing hazardous waste disposal entails imposing stricter standards and the participation of more authorities than is required for treating non-hazardous waste. A more thorough procedure might have shed light the technological risks of the landfill and the deficiencies of the emergency plan.

The company acting as the landfill operator bears liability for classifying the deposited material as non-hazardous at the time of applying for the integrated environmental permit, even though the alkalinity levels clearly met the criteria for hazardous waste. Th e company also bears partial liability in failing to meet the environmental requirements specified in the privatisation contract fully and on time. Similarly, the company bears partial liability for failing to ensure the transition (or the preparation for the transition) to a dry depositing technology, at the latest, by the time of requesting the integrated environmental permit. Though it is at present an open question, local reports suggest that the company might have become aware of the stability problems of the reservoir (local residents reported works carried out in August and September to reinforce the wall of Basin X), but failed to notify any of the official bodies.

***

Furthermore, the occurrence of the accident can be linked to regulatory anomalies owing to the fact there had been defi ciencies in adopting and properly implementing EU legislation. The relevant Hungarian legislation only partially matches “Directive 2008/98/EC on waste requirements”. Th ough it should have entered into force by 12.12.2010, the Directive was not fully implemented in Hungary. An important fact concerning the issue of the responsibility of authorities is that the waste treatment plant belongs to the competence of the Mine Supervision under Hungarian legislation. Th e directive cited imposes an obligation of regular monitoring on the operator, to be carried out at least annually with regard to both the condition of the built structure and of the waste, but this obligation was not fulfilled in practice.

According to the Act on the Environment, the permit-holder (along with the owners and managers of legal entities which cause harm) has increased responsibility for damages incurred through use of the environment, a responsibility which may only be limited, or transferred under very strict conditions. However, these general rules apparently come short of providing for adequate and available fi nancial means needed to cover for the damage incurred. According to the Act adopted in 1995, the rules governing the obligation to provide a security deposit and to establish dedicated reserve funds in the course of the environmental licensing process and the rules on liability insurance policies shall be laid down in a government decree. This objective has only been formally met so far.

On the whole, the EU legislation examined in the present analysis, provided it is adopted and implemented in line with the intent of the legislator, seems suitable for the prevention of similar accidents and for managing the consequences thereof. At the same time, there is a need to adopt uniform classifi cation criteria for hazardous waste, unified EU-wide regulation governing security deposits and liability insurance (at least for reasons concerning competition law), and a common EU environmental emergency fund set up to cover environmental damage that can not be remedied otherwise.

***

It is not possible to account for the Kolontár red mud disaster by means of a single cause. Among the potential causes and preceding events, the following should by all means be noted:

  • Th e conditions of privatization: it was with reference to the obligations of environmental protection that the buyer was able to acquire the Ajka Aluminium plant at a very low price. However, these obligations were not properly regulated within the contract, and there were also gaps in monitoring implementation. Moreover, the authorities allowed on more than one occasion for the owner to postpone meeting these obligations.
  • Defi ciencies in monitoring environmental damage-limitation: the privatisation contracts contained an obligation to provide for environmental damage-limitation, but the monitoring of how this was implemented was defi cient. No detailed documentation is available, except for written records to the effect that invoices were presented as evidence for compliance without technical inspection having taken place;
  • Outdated disposal technology: when the fi rst red mud reservoirs were established, the technology of wet disposal for red mud was still widespread, but much safer dry processes were already available by the time the permit for Basin X was granted, and the integrated environmental permit for the reservoir was granted;
  • Incorrect classification of red mud waste: when the integrated environmental permit was granted, red mud was not classifi ed as hazardous waste, even though it clearly counted as such on the basis of its pH value under the Hungarian and EU legislation then in force;
  • licensing and monitoring malpractice on the part of administrations: following the disaster, a court ruling was required to clarify which authority should have granted a permit for the dam building at the reservoir and carried out static stability inspection of the built structure;
  • the sinking of the dam (which could also be related to posterior slurry walling): satellite images clearly show that the barrier sank in certain places at a rate of 1 cm / year, creating maximum shear stress precisely at the section where the dam fi nally broke, while the sinking itself might have occurred because of the slurry walling, or because of the dam base and subsoil becoming soaked due to the slurry walling. However, no use was made of the satellite imagery in the structural engineering inspection of the dam, even though they were continuously available;
  • Negligence on the part of company management, the authorities and government officials: several NGOs had previously protested about the lack of environmental protection developments and the failure to carry out inspections. Th eir comments had no practical consequences at all.

The Ajka red mud disaster was unique due both to its nature and its dimensions. At least part of the lessons learned from similar industrial accidents remain valid:

  • The costs of remediation are eventually borne by the state, with the companies responsible for incidents almost always backing out of the process to a greater or smaller extent,
  • Compensation for damages only takes place in the long run, with both the range of individuals eventually receiving compensation and its extent far more limited than that originally promised,
  • Personal and institutional responsibility is identifi ed in the rarest of cases,
  • The impact of environmental damage typically lasts longer than was originally estimated.

Additional Resources:

  1. The Kolontár Report – CAUSES AND LESSONS FROM THE RED MUD DISASTER (March 2011)

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