EU: Toxic disasters waiting to happen

The European Union has learned the hard way that having some of the world’s most stringent environmental protection laws on paper does nothing to restrain reservoir walls or turn back toxic tides. And the recent red mud spill in Hungary was not the only disaster waiting to happen, experts say.

The EU’s “Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control” (IPPC) directive came into force in early 2008, after “industrial and agricultural activities with a high pollution potential” had an eight-year transition period to minimize their waste production and maximize their safety precautions. The law requires EU governments to inspect “industrial installations and ensuring they comply with the Directive.”

But the law did not prevent the catastrophic failure of the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company’s (MAL) waste-storage system: When a wall on its reservoir holding millions of gallons of toxic waste failed Oct. 4, a wave of red sludge inundated several villages, killing nine people along with all life in a nearby river.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban laid the blame on a system “that serves private interests” and promised to hold those responsible accountable.

Standing by his side, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso praised the “competence and quick action of the Hungarian authorities.”

But the officials should look in a mirror when pointing fingers, said Lucas Reijnders, a professor of environmental science at the University of Amsterdam.

“It’s very hypocritical,” Reijnders said. The Hungarian accident is at least partially a result of the member states’ failure to implement and enforce the law and the commission’s failure to take action against those governments that don’t, he said. “They are as much to blame as the owner [of the Hungarian plant], actually.”

Officials from the Hungarian facility say it was inspected a couple of weeks before the accident and found to be in acceptable shape to be re-issued a permit for operation. But photos taken in June by Hungarian air photo company Interspect throw that assessment into question. Interspect released a photo after the accident that shows what appears to be sludge leaking from the reservoir four months ago.

MAL’s could be just one of several deadly deluges threatening Europe. Environmental activists say eastern European states, in particular, host many potentially dangerous sites. According to Reijnders, analysis since the IPPC’s passage has found many governments joining companies in violating the laws with apparent impunity.

“This has taken 10 years to come into force and then still nothing happens,” Reijnders said. “It’s completely unbelievable.”

The IPPC is only one of the laws regulating toxic waste in the EU. In addition to legislative attempts to prevent toxic accidents, there are “polluter pays” rules regulating their aftermath. The “Environmental Liability Directive” (ELD), which should have been implemented by member states by April 2007, requires large companies to cover the cost of cleaning up the environment they have sullied and encourages them set aside funds in advance to be used in such cases. Only four countries met the deadline for passing the legislation nationally: Italy, Latvia, Lithuania and Hungary.

Yet Reuters reports MAL has only 20 million forints ($102,200) in liability insurance.

Though not by such a stark margin, the EU itself is also suffering from disaster underpreparedness.

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