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Posted on Sustainabilitank.info on October 17th, 2010
by Pincas Jawetz (pj@sustainabilitank.info)

The Danube’s menacing industrial legacy.

DOUG SAUNDERS

From Saturday’s Globe and Mail, London and Toronto.
Published Friday, Oct. 15, 2010, Last updated Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010

When the earthen retaining wall burst on a Hungarian chemical refinery’s settling pond last week, a lake of caustic red sludge burst forth, drowning or burning to death at least nine people and polluting large tracts of land and river.

But the Ajkai alumina refinery disaster also exposed an alarming, half-buried legacy of poison and potential disaster that stretches along the banks of the Danube River as it courses through the former Communist nations of Eastern Europe – a decades-old legacy of crumbling chemical plants and mines that threatens far worse accidents.

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Regional organizations, ecological groups and the European Union list hundreds of rickety Communist-era chemical plants, refineries and mine smelters strung along the banks and watersheds of the Danube.

Most are like the Ajkai refinery, which was built by the Soviet-bloc Hungarian government in the 1940s and privatized in the early 1990s while relying on the same aging infrastructure.

During the decades of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviets had designated the Danube basin – notably Hungary, but also Romania, Bulgaria and their neighbours – the empire’s centre of chemical and mineral processing. After the end of communism in 1989, the plants either passed into private hands, often with little investment or upkeep, or were abandoned.

“We have no idea how many ticking time bombs are out there – we thought we had a list of the most dangerous sites, but then something like this takes us by surprise,” says Andreas Beckmann, director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Vienna-based Danube program.

The WWF, Greenpeace and local environment groups had all maintained lists of the dangerous mines and chemical ponds in the area – a list that includes more than 1,000 operating and 700 abandoned sites in Hungary alone, and eight that are considered dangerous “hot spots.”

But the Ajkai refinery, site of the worst disaster in a decade (though environmental groups say they have detected only minor pollution of the Danube itself), did not even appear on those lists.

“In this case I wasn’t aware it had existed until last week, which is the unsettling thing – it makes you wonder what else is out there,” Mr. Beckmann said. Its aluminium-oxide sludge pits, which contain millions of litres of a sufficiently potent alkaline to give lethal burns, are not considered a serious pollutant under European regulations.

When the countries of the eastern Danube joined the European Union – Hungary in 2004, then Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 – they became subject to some of the world’s most rigorous environmental regulations. To qualify for membership, both the prospective members and Brussels invested billions in upgrading health and safety infrastructure.

But officials now fear that many of these countries, which tend to register high on corruption indices, may have hidden unsafe, crumbling industries in much the same way that Greece hid billions in debt liabilities. There is a fear, one European Commission official involved in the Hungarian case said, that “these guys could be paying the inspectors to overlook a chemical Chernobyl.”

Hungarian environmentalists feel that the Ajkai alumina plant could not have passed any sort of rigorous inspections – aerial photos released Thursday showed the containment walls leaking and crumbling months before the collapse. “They made a huge mistake in legalizing this factory in the first place,” Marton Vau, spokesman for Greenpeace Hungary, told reporters.

And while weak and under-inspected mines and refineries such as Ajkai are a worry, even more serious are the hundreds, possibly thousands, of abandoned Communist-era chemical plants and storage ponds, many of them falling under the jurisdiction of no private or public-sector authority, some of them forgotten.

To drive across Bulgaria, for example, is to pass through scores of abandoned Stalinist factory towns, their concrete work yards and high-rise apartments turned into graffiti-pocked ghost towns. Many contain fields and lakes of serious toxins, slowly leaching into the watershed as their containers decompose.

And the Danube nation of Serbia is a particular worry, as it contains hundreds of ex-Yugoslav Communist factories – many abandoned – is not yet a member of the EU, and lacks the financial resources to clean up its industrial ruins.

“I do worry that there could be an even more serious catastrophe out there that we haven’t noticed, waiting to happen,” said Mr. Beckmann of the WWF. “And instead of red sludge, it could end up being cyanide next time.”

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