Hungary: Chemical Spill Red Sludge (2010)
Following the collapse of an alumina waste reservoir, a toxic wave of ‘red sludge’ flooded the surrounding area, destroying villages and contaminating land. This case study presents the key elements of the Hungarian Red Cross response to this disaster, and aims to raise awareness of technological and biological (CBRN) hazards.
At mid-day on 4 October 2010, the retaining wall of a caustic waste reservoir collapsed, releasing close to two million m³ of alumina residue. The thick wave of toxic red sludge reached neighbouring villages within minutes. Locals (including first responders) were completely unaware of the risks. Residents rushed to save their animals and possessions, unwittingly exposing themselves to the toxic residue. Ten people were killed and close to 300 injured. More than 120 people required hospitalization due to chemical burns.
Buildings in the worst-affected areas had to be demolished. More than 300 families lost their homes and had to be permanently relocated. The environmental impact was also substantial: over 4,000 hectares of land was contaminated. In total, over 7,000 people were affected, losing their homes and livelihoods. This is considered to have been Hungary’s worst industrial and environmental catastrophe.
The process used at the Ajka plant extracts aluminium oxide, or alumina, from bauxite ore, which is then used to produce pure aluminium. The waste, known as red mud, is a mix of solid impurities, heavy metals (such as cadmium, cobalt and lead), and chemicals used in processing. This caustic mixture can burn skin on prolonged contact and is considered an environmental hazard.
- Toxic spill of 1.8 million m³ strongly alkaline liquid red sludge.
- Seven villages and 4,000 hectares flooded (1,035 ha of agricultural land).
- Loss of 386 homes.
- Ten people killed.
- Close to 300 people in need of medical care, with 120 hospitalized.
- Over 7,000 people affected due to displacement and loss of livelihoods.
- Within 9 months, 350 families re-housed
- Land cleared: 870,000 m³ of contaminated substances and 146,000 m³ of demolition rubble removed to designated dumps.
- On-going relief and financial assistance provided to 350 families.
The Hungarian Red Cross mobilized within hours. The NS was tasked by the government to coordinate the overall NGO relief operation.
Main activities during the emergency response phase consisted of:
- First-aid and transport of injured to medical facilities.
- Relief distribution and provision of water to 350 families in worst-affected settlements.
- Provision of meals to local population and first-responders.
- Distribution of protective equipment (e.g. masks, goggles, rubber boots) to people at greatest risk.
- Temporary shelter provision for evacuees.
- HRC launched a national fund-raising campaign to assist the displaced over the longer term.
- The local HRC branch played a crucial role in community engagement and resilience-building and provided on-going information to the communities.
- Trained community-based volunteers provided much-needed psychosocial support within a trusted environment.
- Local authorities focused on clearing and decontamination, as well as monitoring water and air quality.
- Local population permanently re-housed in newly-built communities, or relocated within 9 months. Over a thousand hectares of contaminated soil removed and/or rehabilitated.
- HRC initiated long-term Community Resilience Programme to help displaced regain sense of community and re-build ties within different segments of society – with a particular focus on the elderly.
- Community Centre established by HRC continues to thrive, ten years on.
- HRC’s initiative considered to be an exemplary resilience-building project and sets the template for future community engagement efforts.
- Sudden, unexpected and multi-faceted.
- Local population unaware of risks and toxicity of ‘red sludge’, leading to death and injury.
- Severe humanitarian and environmental consequences:
- Over 300 houses demolished due to toxicity;
- Soil and water contamination, also affecting livelihoods.
- Initial coordination hampered by inexperience of newly-elected local officials.
- National Government takes control.
- HRC tasked with coordinating humanitarian relief. Acts as ‘bridge’ between NGOs and national authorities.
- Well-defined decision-making structures and clear goals for recovery established.
- ‘National Humanitarian Committee’ formally set up in response to this disaster.
- Lack of prior awareness of risks involved.
- Lack of understanding of toxic nature of ‘red sludge’.
- HRC providing regular and reliable communications, in response to high levels of anxiety within community.