Deadly Trio: Gulf Oil Spill, Coal Ash, and Red Sludge

There are chilling similarities among these toxic triplets

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As my colleague Raviya Ismail described yesterday, the flood of toxic red sludge in Hungary is ominously similar to the toxic coal ash flood two years ago that swept out of a ruptured reservoir into a Tennessee town. But, the comparisons don’t stop there.

The size and toxicity of the red sludge are also being compared to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. They are roughly the same volume and can be harmful in high concentrations. They both have had immediate lethal effects on human and animal species, and are expected to have long-lasting harm. Moreover, in both cases, the governments involved have downplayed their impacts.

Hungarian officials are declaring the red sludge menace to be under control and without the feared consequences, even though at least seven people have died and aquatic life in various rivers and creeks have been wiped out. Read the following three graphs from a news report today and ask yourself if they sound familiar:

"The (environmental) consequences do not seem to be that dramatic," Philip Weller, the head of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube, told The Associated Press.

The Danube is absorbing the sludge and the threat has been eliminated, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said.

"We managed to take control of the situation in time."

Recall that just this week, Pres. Obama’s oil spill commission issued four reports highly critical of the administration’s handling of the oil spill. The reports noted that the government had downplayed the spill in its first few weeks (underestimating the spill by a factor of at least 40), then at the end declared the oil mostly gone (when in fact, scientists have said most of it remains underwater).

Greenpeace is challenging the soothing assessment of the red sludge flood, just as Earthjustice and many other environmental groups are challenging how the Gulf oil spill was handled.

As for the comparison between red sludge and coal ash—both of which are byproducts of industrialization (coal ash comes from burning coal for power, red sludge from aluminum processing) and are stored near communities—we can’t help but be appalled and chilled. A study we helped spearhead has revealed that there are 137 coal ash containment sites across America, each a ticking time bomb full of heavy metals and other hazardous materials that can leach into water supplies and contaminate the air we breathe.

The obvious threat of coal ash is why we continue to pressure the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate coal ash as a hazardous substance. The EPA even now is trying to determine which regulatory course of action to take.There is still time for you to send EPA a message to treat coal ash as the hazardous threat that it is..


From 2006–2014, Terry was managing editor for Earthjustice's blog, online monthly newsletter and print Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.