On Tuesday afternoon, a flood of toxic red sludge engulfed several towns in southwestern Hungary. An estimated 185 million gallons were spilled when a storage tank for the sludge, a byproduct of aluminum production, burst and sent the sludge gushing into the surrounding area. Houses and streets were flooded, cars swept away, and four people lost their lives with more than 120 others injured by burns from contact with the highly alkaline substance.
The environmental consequence might be even more devastating. By the time it was all said and done, more than 16 square miles of farmland and countryside were buried beneath the toxic mess, and experts are worried the environmental effects will be devastating for a much larger area. Fish and wildlife in local streams have already been killed, and officials fear the sludge will be carried downstream, polluting the Danube River and affecting at least four other countries in addition to Hungary.
While red sludge is regulated by the European Union, it is not considered hazardous waste in all cases. Similarly, red sludge is not a toxic or carcinogenic substance under United States Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.
Does this situation sound familiar? It should.
In December 2008, a spill of similar magnitude destroyed a Tennessee community. The culprit that time—coal ash. Since then, through the efforts of the Sierra Club and environmental organizations across the county, Americans have begun to realize of the dangers of coal ash. Stored in huge, often unlined pits, toxins from coal ash such as lead, mercury, and arsenic can seep into ground water, ruin soil, and, in the case of the Tennessee accident, destroy entire communities and ecosystems.
While we cannot do much about the tragedy in Hungary, we can do something to combat the exact same problems that exist here at home, across the nation, and perhaps in your backyard. Responding to these frightening realities, the EPA has initiated a series of hearings across the nation to receive public input in the decision to bring coal ash under federal regulation as a toxic waste. The EPA’s open comment period regarding regulation of coal ash has been extended to November 19. Visit www.regulations.gov and reference “EPA-HQ-RCRA-2009-0640” to make your voice heard. You can also take further action and learn more about the perils of coal by visiting the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal website: http://www.sierraclub.org/coal/default.aspx.