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Greg Dorey


Part of UK in Hungary

8th December 2010

A little help from my friends: part 2

The harrowing media pictures of Hungary’s red sludge disaster are the past. The clear-up is underway, but other people’s problems have displaced the red sludge from the headlines. So what is life in the affected villages like now? And how is remediation work progressing? I was hoping to join a field trip to the site organised by the Ministry for Rural Development on 1 December. But a series of high level visits (see my 26 November entry on “Innovation and democracy”) put paid to that. And to add to our excitement, the snow in the UK extended the stay of some of our VIP visitors further than planned.

So I was glad to learn that two British experts were coming out here to Hungary that same week to assist with the assessment of the longer term impacts of the disaster. I was sure that they could give us a much more detailed and useful account of the situation that I could have obtained from that field trip. The Professors in question, from Newcastle and Hull Universities, were following up an earlier mission by four other UK experts (see my 18 November entry, ‘A little help from my friends’). This latest visit was funded by the UK National Environmental Research Council (NERC). The team’s objective was to collect samples both at the disaster site and miles away downstream in North-West Hungary up to the Mosoni branch of River Danube. These samples will be analysed in the coming weeks and the British researchers will provide a preliminary report to their Hungarian partners, the Technical University of Budapest and the Hungarian Geological Institute, at end-January.

The British experts are now examining how the red mud sediment in water might behave in the future. It is encouraging that their preliminary opinion is that the eco-toxicity is not as serious as was feared in the early days following the accident. They told us that a relatively small area is affected and that the remedial action is well managed. They also praised the speed with which the Hungarians implemented the clean-up. (They witnessed the surface layers of the polluted soil being collected by huge trucks and taken back to the containment area.)

Not only will the findings of the British experts feed into the impact assessment study by the Hungarian authorities, but they will also inform the aluminum industry on how to make their technologies more environmentally-friendly in future. Hats off to this concerted, prompt and effective UK assistance – to the Chief Science Advisor’s Office at the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) for linking up the Hungarians with the British experts; to NERC for agreeing a grant so quickly; and to the experts themselves for taking part in the field work and subsequent laboratory work. Fingers crossed that the experts’ initial expectations about a much lower degree of toxicity than feared will be borne out by their lab tests.