Hungarian Toxic Sludge Reaches The Mighty Danube

In Hungary, several villages were devastated earlier this week when a highly caustic waste product from an aluminum factory poured out of its holding reservoir. Four people were killed as the red sludge spread through the villages and into rivers and creeks. Those waterways in turn have now carried the sludge to the Danube — Europe's second-longest river. And neighboring countries are monitoring the water to make sure the sludge is effectively diluted. NPR's Robert Siegel talks with Elisabeth Rosenthal, environment reporter for the New York Times, who is in Budapest.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In Hungary, a red tide of sludge from a burst reservoir in an aluminum plant has reached the Danube River. The reservoir broke on Monday. The sludge is a waste product, created when bauxite is refined into alumina, which is then made into aluminum. At least four people were killed and more than a hundred were injured when the sludge streamed through several Hungarian villages.

Environmental reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times is in Budapest. She was in the villages yesterday. And first, tell us, how big is this sludge spill?

Ms. ELISABETH ROSENTHAL (Environment Reporter, New York Times): Well, it's a huge amount of sludge, as sludge goes. I mean, it basically poured through these three villages like a tsunami.

People were just sitting there, getting ready for lunch, when suddenly they heard a rumbling and looked out of their windows and just saw this wave of red gook flooding through the village. So everywhere you look, there's this red goo on the ground. People's skin is stained. The animals are all red. It's really devastating in those places.

SIEGEL: Is the sludge toxic or not toxic?

Ms. ROSENTHAL: It depends how you define toxic, I guess. It's normally, under European Union rules, classified as a pollutant unless it contains high levels of heavy metals.

The Hungarian Academy of Sciences said this particular batch doesn't seem to. The main problem with the sludge, though, is that it's very caustic. It's very alkaline. So by U.S. EPA standards, anything with a pH over 12.5 is hazardous waste, and this was measured as high as 13.

SIEGEL: It's like lye, you're saying.

Ms. ROSENTHAL: Right, this is way up there. Fourteen is the maximum. So this is really, really alkaline, and when it touched people's skin, that's why they got burned. It just basically eats away at things it touches, which is why they have to get rid of it in the villages and why they're trying to dilute it and wash it out.

SIEGEL: And when you see a stream or a river in that area, you can tell that there's sludge in that water just from looking at it?

Ms. ROSENTHAL: Oh, the local river in that area is bright red. It's thick. It's not like water.

SIEGEL: The photographs of people who were inundated with this stuff, it just looks horrible. It looks like it's the most awful experience one can imagine.

Ms. ROSENTHAL: Yes, this goop has a very high yuck factor. I mean, literally they're tinged red. They look like they've been hennaed, almost. This stuff gets in their skin, in their clothes. So it really is like a bad science fiction movie.

SIEGEL: Now, what do you make of the sludge reaching the Danube? Is that - I mean, is that the way it's going to be dispersed, and ultimately, it'll be gone? Is it a hazard to all the countries that the Danube runs through? What exactly is the danger there?

Ms. ROSENTHAL: Well, initially there was great concern that this would wash down to the Danube and create more widespread environmental disaster. I think that worry has lessened over time because the rivers are pretty good at washing things out.

So yes, the leading edge of the spill arrived at the Danube, but it's been so diluted that the pH is now, as it's approaching Budapest, down to about eight, which fish and plants can survive in. So I think there's not the concern there was that this was going to be a regional ecologic disaster for the Danube.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you very much for talking with us about it.

Ms. ROSENTHAL: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's environmental reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times, speaking to us from Budapest in Hungary.

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