The highly toxic red sludge that has reached the famed river Danube after a reservoir holding industrial waste burst in Hungary is a major environmental disaster, exposing major weaknesses in the European Union's environment protection regime. At the MAL Zrt aluminium plant near the Hungarian village of Ajka, 165 km south-west of Budapest, a dam restraining highly toxic red sludge ruptured on October 5 after prolonged rain. Seven villages were inundated; seven people have been killed so far and 150 have been injured. That figure could rise as chemical burns take effect. The sludge is highly alkaline and contains lead; it may also contain the radioactive elements cadmium and cobalt. The sludge is now drying into dust which the wind can carry up to 15 km. The chemicals killed all life in nearby rivers and then entered the Mosoni branch of the 3,020-km Danube. Ominously, further risks of sludge-flooding have emerged. The Hungarian government, having declared a state of emergency in three counties, has evacuated one of the affected villages. Workers are making frenetic efforts to counter its alkalinity, efforts which have been partially successful.

The fact that local groups had been warning of the risks for several years highlights major systemic problems. The EU Environmental Liability Directive, issued in 2004, requires member-states to achieve a common result by a set date; governments have to ensure prevention or remedial action by private or other bodies. A hurdle in this regard is that it is not compulsory for private bodies to obtain insurance for environmental damage, and insurers can reject applications for cover. The Directive excludes natural disasters, thereby creating pressure to describe all environmental damage as naturally-caused. Too much depends on member-states' own will and the quality of their public institutions; the MAL plant, privatised in 1995, had passed an official inspection a fortnight earlier and an internal inspection on the very day the dam ruptured. The key problem however lies in the implications of the “polluter pays” principle, which was incorporated into the European Economic Community Treaty in 1987. This places the burden on the private bodies which, in this case, have not been held to any fixed standard of accountability. It is difficult to envisage any private body willing or being able to redeem large-scale environmental damage. Until the EU devises much stronger environment-protection systems that are more demanding of the private producers responsible for these disasters, more such unfortunate events are bound to happen.

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