Hungarian Alumina Refinery Disaster – What Exactly is This Red Mud?

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Commodities, Non-ferrous Metals

We have had lead contamination, mine accidents, and now it is the turn of the aluminum industry to come under the microscope following a major, and we mean major, spill of liquid waste from the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company (MAL) alumina refinery between Ajke and Kolontal in Hungary. At least four people are confirmed dead, several more missing and over 60 hospitalized.

To be fair this isn’t the aluminum industry as we know it. The plant in question refines bauxite to produce special calcined aluminas and aluminum hydroxides, synthetic zeolites and gallium for sale in central and western Europe for refractories, ceramics and a wide range of aluminum containing chemical reactants. This is not, nowadays anyway, a plant for producing alumina for aluminum smelting.

As you can see in this link the holding ponds are only a short distance from the town of Kolontal, the town that suffered a 6-8ft wave of red mud sludge that surged through the streets and went on to cover an area of some 16 square miles. Although the firm asserts that 98% of the waste has remained in the ponds, it is estimated (a curiously precise) 35.3 million cubic feet have contaminated a wide area. One source puts the volume as equivalent to 440 Olympic sized swimming pools.

Contamination is an interesting issue, MAL asserts the red mud is just a non toxic by-product of the refining process, produced as the alumina is precipitated out from a caustic soda solution. Reports of acid burning are therefore more likely to be due to high alkalinity – an Australian CSIRO report states that in similar Australian tailings ponds the ph could be up to 11 or more. By comparison Ammonia is 12 and Bleach is 13, so 11 is certainly strong enough to cause intense irritation.

Some articles are suggesting the waste contains heavy metals and is toxic. One report specifically mentions lead as a contaminant but in truth, metals contained are going to depend on the source of the bauxite from which the alumina was refined. One source states the refining process yields three tons of sludge for every ton of alumina produced but a more scholarly piece of research in Turkey suggest the figure is more like one for one and CSIRO’s report suggest more like 2 for 1.

A table of analysis from samples of red mud taken from the Etibank Aluminium refinery suggest the color comes from the high iron oxide content. More disturbingly the report goes on to say the waste can contain thorium and uranium and confirms it can be highly caustic. The majority of the constituents are relatively harmless, iron oxide, aluminum oxide, silica and sodium, titanium and calcium oxides. It’s the minor constituents and caustic ph of this sludge that could prove to be the most dangerous contaminants.

MAL, the operators of the Ajka refinery make much on their website of environmental responsibility and the firm carries certification to ISO 14001, the environment management system. As the Google Earth map above showed earlier, ponds have been gradually covered over and some level of vegetation reintroduced, suggesting that in the long term the sludge may not be damaging to vegetation. Quite why this pond burst on this occasion will be the subject of intense investigation and possibly even criminal proceedings if the management or their procedures are found to be seriously wanting. Meanwhile the Marcal and adjoining Torna rivers have been put on high alert by the Western Transdanubian Environmental Protection and Water Management authority (that’s a mouthful isn’t it) – the Hungarian EPA. But the growing fear is run off will reach the Danube, one of Europe’s major waterways, in which case the effects of this spill could spread the environmental disaster well beyond Hungary’s borders.

–Stuart Burns

Postscript: If you are in the aluminum industry and would like to receive a free weekly aluminum report from HARBOR Aluminum, a MetalMiner research sponsor, click this link to register and your report will be made available to you immediately.

Comments (18)

  1. Joseph says:

    Here’s a breakdown of what exactly is in the sludge. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences (kind of central scientific body here) took some samples at the site and this is the result. The page is in Hungarian but the table is obviously understandable.

    http://mta.hu/cikkek/a-vorosiszap-szennyezes-hatasai-125707

    According to their findings, lead levels are insignificant and radioactivity is below dangerous levels for even long-term exposure.

    Alkalinity in the rivers is being countered by dumping acetic acid and gypsum in to the Marcal and Rába rivers. 500 tons of that acid and 1500 tons of gypsum have been dumped so far with more to come.

    They are also trying to hold up the sediment (the actual mud) in the Marcal by laying small “bottom dams”. Can’t translate it properly but these are basically small barriers on the bottom of the river that will hopefully hold up a lot of the heavier sediment. There’s also (official) talk about diverting the whole river temporarily (it’s relatively small) into an emergency reservoir so the sediment can settle there, but even the Hungarian media’s reporting is inadequate.

  2. Lazlo Kovacs says:

    As usual, the press make things out to be one thousand times worse than reality. Sure, this is an unfortunate thing that has happened but in a year it will be like nothing happened. We must find out what caused this spill and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

  3. Harv says:

    Lazlo, did you not say the same statement about the gulf spill a couple of months ago on another site? Your blanket optimism is refreshing, but not very reassuring. Maybe you have one eye on your industrial stock portfolio and it distorts your vision?

  4. Mark says:

    Tailings Dam Breaks Happen So Regularly They Are Unmanageable Technology, a Chronology from 1960:
    http://www.wise-uranium.org/mdaf.html

    Many tailings dams break, all the time. See the chronology of such breaks at the link above showing 20 breaks over the past 10 years worldwide.

    With permanent damage as the result, the whole idea of tailings dams as a manageable risk should be made illegal. There are better ways to get minerals, by using technologies of biomimicry to mine metals for example.

    As the troll above stated: “As usual, the press make things out to be one thousand times worse than reality. ” Actually, on the contrary, most people think the mainstream press tends to make things artificially one thousand times more optimistic than reality because the press is so controlled by states and industry already.

    When material disasters happen, corporations and goverments spend more effort and time managing minds with propaganda, with claims of its innocuousness, than they bother in managing the disaster materially or making sure it doesn’t happen. Why is that brainwashing legitimate or tolerated?

    The media incessantly underplays toxic disasters, calling them “accidents.” However, they are hardly “accidents” since things like this are unstoppable, unmanageable in-built structures on our landscapes waiting to damage everything, brought into being and protected by an ecological tyranny over us that has demoted other saner choices of development and technological prowess.

    You have to change your political structure to make it more representative. You have to change industrial choices of processes as well.

    For the first, green constitutional engineering would help. If people were enfranchised to think deeply about their development, their natural ecological self-interest would have kept this out of their watershed. So I expect that watershed election districts would not have allowed such a thing to ever be planned in the first place. http://biostate.blogspot.com for more information.

    For the second, there are many ways to refine metals without such toxic requirements of paying the deadly chemical companies their pound of flesh. http://commodityecology.blogspot.com for more information.

  5. Stuart says:

    Joseph, some splendid detail there, thank you very much. You have answered many of the open ended questions in my original post, well done.

  6. John says:

    “it is estimated (a curiously precise) 35.3 million cubic feet have contaminated”

    Typical press report. Someone said a nice round 1 million cubic meters, an idiotic reporter translates it at 35.3 cf/cm.

  7. A funny Name Like Lazlo says:

    lol lazlo

  8. Mothman says:

    I disagree, Titanium Dioxide is not all relatively harmless, it is a well recognised serious carcinogen, I know, you get it in toothpaste as well, not to clean teeth, but just to paint over yellow plaque to give the false illusion of clean teeth, it should be banned. This is of course the same stuff in vitamin and pharmaceutical pills (what on earth do they put it in for as it is a recognised carcinogen except to poison us all with?) and artists paint and house paint. It is a recognised cause of cancer in fish even in the extremely dilute measures in human sewage that reach the North sea. (40% of all bottom swimming fish in the North Sea in the 1970’s had cancer, God knows what that figure is today, if they dare publish it , and they won’t, all four seals pups of a pair fed North Sea fish on a TV program that I viewed in the early 1970’s called ‘Tomorrow’s World’ died , whereas all 4 seal pups of a pair fed North Atlantic fish survived perfectly healthy. The flesh of the seal adults fed North Sea fish festered with 6 inch to 8 inch open bleeding pustulent sores. Would you feed your pregnant wife this?

  9. Joseph says:

    Mothman, I’m not sure whether i achieve anything by adding this, but the report also said:
    ~ The above listed materials[of the mud] are not all in the indicated forms. The list gives you the percentages calculated into these forms.

    I’m out of my league here, really, but i guess what they are trying to say that the Titanium might not be in a TiO2 bind, for example. Whether this is self-explanatory for you experts here or not, and whether this post was completely pointless or not, i have no idea. (I also have no idea whether it is standard practice to do this kind of conversion.) I just felt this might be of significance.

  10. Collin says:

    Hi,

    May I know where can I source about 1 kilogram of Red Mud. Please feel free to contact me at collin@ums.edu.my. Thank you.
     

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