Writing in response to the recent toxic sludge spill at Ajka in Hungary, Edit Herczog called on your pages for the creation of a control and relief fund to deal with industrial disasters (“Hungary’s sludge, the EU’s lessons” 21-27 October). WWF fears this is not enough to avert similar disasters in the future.
The fact is that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other ‘Ajkas’ strewn across the countries of central and eastern Europe, many of them the legacy of the communist period. One of the problems is that we do not know exactly how many there are. The last comprehensive overview of toxic-waste sites dates from 2004, when the European Commission ordered a due-diligence study to be carried out across the EU’s new and future member states. In Hungary, the study found 260 sites that were of concern and eight hotspots of particularly high risk. Some work has been done in the meantime to address these risks, but not enough to prevent the disaster. One of the scary things about the recent accident at the Ajka facility in Hungary is that nobody seemed to be aware of the risk that it posed. This shows that a new in-depth analysis of the toxic-waste areas in central and eastern Europe is urgently needed.
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We also need to address the gaps and failings in EU legislation that permitted the Ajka disaster. In particular, the EU’s mining waste directive, while providing for stricter standards for mining waste facilities, has a number of weaknesses, including a lengthy phase-in period until 2012. This was obviously too late to save the village of Kolontár in Hungary. The directive also fails to address adequately the small and medium-sized facilities or abandoned sites, both of them huge problems in the region’s post-communist countries. The EU centre that Edit Herczog calls for would at least help to ensure the effective and uniform implementation of the legislation.
If there is to be a proper memorial to the nine victims of Hungary’s worst environmental disaster, then let it be determined by efforts from the EU and member states to identify the dozens of ticking toxic time-bombs still hidden in the region. We look to the Hungarian government to seize the leadership in these efforts when it takes over the rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers in January.
WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme