EU: Toxic disasters waiting to happen

BRUSSELS, Belgium — 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.

A study prepared last year for the environment commission by the Dutch consulting firm Ecorys found six major gaps in the EU’s collective capacity to deal with scenarios ranging from weather to natural disasters to manmade catastrophes. They include a lack of funding to cover transportation and deployment of response resources, such as firefighting planes or chemical-sampling equipment. In some cases, government even lacks the capacity to mandate the dispatch of those resources.

Ecorys’ suggestions include working out better co-financing options, such as having the commission cover the entire cost of transporting or deploying assistance provided by member states, and compiling better assessments of needs and capabilities. The role of coordination by the EU’s monitoring and information center should be strengthened, according to the recommendations, and experts should be on call for the commission to deploy at very short notice to help in disaster situations. But to close the gaps in a way that would ensure “European solidarity” would require “in-depth reform,” Ecorys said.

Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik is likely to be one of the driving forces behind that kind of reform. After a recent meeting during which Hungary’s environment minister updated his 26 colleagues on the red sludge spill, Potocnik said that “obviously something went wrong” in the Hungarian case and that authorities must crack down.

“It’s not only about having in place European legislation,” Potocnik said, “it’s actually implementing and enforcing European legislation.” The most important thing to realize about the Hungarian spill, Potocnik added, “is that the costs of preventing such accidents pales into insignificance when lives are lost and when compared to the costs, economic and environmental, of remediation.”

Lucas Reijnders said studies have shown that the cost of “really properly handling mining waste would be between 1 and 2 percent of a company’s overall cost, which would “hardly make European industry uncompetitive.”

In January Hungary takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, giving it an opportunity to drive progress on disaster preparedness.

“I think they’ve now learned their lesson,” Reijnders said, “because this is a major disaster for Hungary. I hope they act on that and make the whole European Union implement these laws.”