IRELAND is in danger of suffering a toxic sludge disaster even worse than that which is devastating areas of Hungary, it has been claimed.
Twenty million tons of the red mud are contained in Limerick’s Aughinish Alumina plant, close to the Shannon river.
And the threat of a disaster there – the largest alumina refinery in Europe – is ‘very real’, according to a safety expert who worked at the plant.
Dr Edward Horgan said last night that the proximity of the mountain of red mud to the tidal river is what should be ringing alarm bells.
He said: ‘It’s a toxic time bomb.’
With more than 450 employees, it is a major employer in the area and bosses at the plant claim it injects as much as €1million into the local economy.
Of deep concern to Dr Horgan, however, is the fact that the amount of waste residue at the plant is ‘many times’ that which flooded three towns in Hungary last Monday week, killing eight people so far.
He worked at the site between 1987 and 1995, and last night he said: ‘The Limerick plant’s red mud pile is massive compared to the amount that spilled out in Hungary.
‘I estimate that it is around 50million tons. All you need here is a combination of high tides in the Shannon estuary and a bout of prolonged rainfall and you have the potential for disaster.
Aughinish Alumina bosses last night played down fears that the -250-acre mud pile could burst its walls, as happened in Hungary. They said it could withstand ‘a once in a 100-year event’.
They also insisted that most of the red mud at the €1.2billion plant, which is owned by Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska’s aluminium processing firm Rusal, is not hazardous.
They dispute Dr Horgan’s assertion that there is at least million tons of waste on the site – saying that it is ‘nearer to 20million tons’.
A spokesman said: ‘Our plant and all its facilities are designed to the best available technological standards, we receive regular surveillance and we run a very highly regulated site.
‘We are not going to comment on what Dr Horgan has to say but the red mud is non-hazardous, as classified by the Environmental Protection Agency.’
However, he then admitted that there was a ‘percentage of hazardous material’ but said it was ‘a small percentage of the overall residue’.
The Limerick plant uses a similar process as that used at the site in Hungary when disaster struck. It is called the Bayer process and it refines bauxite (aluminum ore) to produce aluminium oxide, or alumina.
The red mud is the by-product of getting aluminum out of the bauxite, which comes out of the ground containing many minerals, including some heavy metals.
The process involves soaking the ore in sodium hydroxide to separate the aluminum from the unwanted minerals, creating the toxic sludge or ‘red mud’.
At least two tons of bauxite – 3.6million tons of which is shipped in from Brazil and west Africa each year – is needed to produce just one ton of alumina.
The red mud is highly alkaline. After the residue is treated, it is laid out across the red mud pile via a series of pipes and pumps. The idea is that it dries but each newly laid layer is then compacted under fresher layers.
These layers can, as reporter Philip Boucher Hayes pointed out on RTE radio’s Drive Time yesterday, dry under hot sunny conditions. And, in the 1990s, this caused a problem because in high winds, toxic dust clouds were formed.
Dr Horgan recalls calling the fire brigade out to hose down sections of the red mud pile but the plant has since installed a sophisticated sprinkler system.
He said last night: ‘Although dust clouds have not been a problem at the plant for a while, I have heard about an incident in the past year.’
As well as water spray to cut down on dust, the plant also lays out cheap hay which then rots and forms as a sort of protective mesh over the red mud.
The company claims its method of treating waste in Limerick is superior to the Hungary plant.
In Hungary they use a ‘wet pond’ facility to treat the by-product, different from the ‘dry -stacking’ method in Limerick.
A spokesman said: ‘The major advantage of the Aughinish ‘dry stacking’ system is that the deposited residue is not hazardous waste.
‘It compacts and solidifies and can be walked on and driven on today. It also means the area can be reinstated with vegetation and returned to its natural state with relative ease.
‘This methodology and the process model and software that we use for ‘mud farming’ has been developed through research and development at Rusal Aughinish and is being patented as it is Best Available Technology.’
Dust from this residue has, however, been blamed by local farmers as the cause for problems with their cattle as well as their health.
And there have been a number of incidents over the years. A spray of more than 5,000 litres of lime, bauxite and caustic soda slurry erupted into the air in March after a pressure failure at the plant, sending workers fleeing indoors.
The previous year, tons of caustic soda overflowed from a storage tank for more than three hours before anybody noticed.
The EPA was first informed by a member of the public – and not the company, as it was obliged to. In 2003 a boiler malfunctioned – sending plumes of thick black smoke into the air.
That same year, an EPA survey discovered emissions at the plant were – in some cases – more than seven times permitted levels.
A power failure caused a caustic vapour cloud to be formed over the plant in May 2002 but an incident in May the previous year is its worst so far.
Then – when the company was owned by a different firm – more than 500,000 litres of a highly toxic alkaline solution leaked from the plant.
Much of it went straight into the Shannon killing every plant and fish life as it did.
But yet again, a member of the public reported the spillage to the EPA while the company at first insisted the incident was minor one and said just 50,000 litres had leaked.
The higher figure only emerged after an EPA investigation and led to the plant owners being fined.
Last night, a spokesman for the plant said: ‘We do not accept that the plant is responsible for any health problems experienced by the farmers or their cattle.
‘The EPA came out with a report which dismissed the claims and we support the report’s findings.’
Originally designed to produce 800,000 tons of alumina each year when it opened in 1983, the plant is now operating at more than double the capacity.
Its owner Oleg Vladimirovich Deripaska is estimated to be worth about $10.7billion, down somewhat on estimations for his wealth in 2008.
Then he was ranked the 9th richest person in the world, according to the Forbes rich list, with an estimated $28bilion fortune.
Nuclear physics graduate Deripaska is married to former Russian President Boris Yeltzin’s grand daughter. No slouch when it comes to charity, a foundation he has set up hands out between $60million and $100million-a-year to around 400 mostly educational initiatives in Russia.
While hardly a household name here, the 42-year-old father-of-two – who is also involved in aircraft and automobile manufacturing – is better known in the UK.
In 2008, Peter Mandelson spent time on Deripaska’s Queen K private yacht while he was serving as EU Trade Commissioner. At the time, he was involved in discussions dealing with the reduction of EU aluminium tariffs.
Dr Horgan said last night: ‘There is little danger of a disaster such the Hungarian one in the short and medium terms.
‘The immediate danger lies in health hazards to employees and local residents from much smaller scale leaks of dust and toxic materials into the air and ground water, and the danger in the longer term when the plant closes down.
‘Apart from closure for economic reasons, the plant will eventually be forced to close due to lack of space to store the red mud waste.
‘At Aughinish Island the plant is already experiencing waste storage difficulties and they are getting around this by piling the waste mound ever higher, using containing walls of stone.
‘This requires careful monitoring and regular maintenance which will continue as long as the plant remains in operation. The inevitable eventual closure of the plant could be a ‘disaster waiting to happen’ several years after closure.
‘It would be precipitated most likely in winter-time by an exceptionally prolonged period of heavy rain, of the type described as the worst in living memory.
‘The rains of 1947 are still part of local folklore, and their like are probably due again.’
He added: ‘Unlike the Hungarian disaster, when the Aughinish mud pile starts to move, there will be no stopping it.
‘There will probably be a build-up of water internally and externally and the mountain will simply burst northwards into the estuary possibly during a very high or spring tide.
‘It won’t just go westwards toward the sea at Ballybunion, destroying all in its path on both sides of the estuary.
‘Some of it will also be washed towards Limerick City, and towards nearby Shannon airport and up the River Fergus estuary, as the tides come in twice a day.’
LAST night the plant’s owners, RUSAL, issued the following statement:
‘We would like to express our shock and sadness for the tragic loss of life and the injuries suffered by people following the major accident at the Hungarian Ajkai plant owned by MAL Rt., the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company.
‘The RUSAL-owned Aughinish plant in Limerick does not have a bauxite residue lake or pond. That type of older process is conventionally referred to as “wet ponding”.
‘This method would not be given planning permission or licensed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Ireland.
‘Instead RUSAL Aughinish uses the “dry stacking” system of bauxite residue disposal.
‘This dry stacking method utilises modern technology to dewater the bauxite residue within the process plant. The residue is washed, vacuum filtered and then transferred to the dry stacking bauxite residue disposal area (BRDA) as a thick paste.
In the BRDA itself, further drying takes place using thin layer deposition and a mobile plant technology termed “mud farming”.
‘There, we use equipment known as an Amphiroll, which has been developed specifically for modern bauxite residue disposal areas, to further dewater the residue.
‘This equipment ensures that the maximum quantity of the remaining free water is removed from the residue.
‘This fluid along with rain water run-off is then recycled to the alumina plant.
‘The major advantage of the Aughinish “dry stacking” system is that the deposited residue is not hazardous waste. ‘It compacts and solidifies and can be walked on and driven on today.
‘It also means the area can be reinstated with vegetation and returned to its natural state with relative ease.
‘This methodology and the process model and software that we use for “mud farming” has been developed through research and development at RUSAL Aughinish and is being patented as it is best available technology.
The EU Commission produced a Best Reference Document in 2005 to act as a guideline for the design and operation of current and future residue disposal facilities.
‘The EU technical experts visited the RUSAL Aughinish bauxite residue disposal area during the development of the BRef.
The BRef states that the key feature of the Aughinish design – dry disposal rather than wet lake – makes it an example of best available technology.
‘The BRef document issued by the EU Commission references the Aughinish BRDA engineering design and operation more than 18 times as examples of best available technology.
‘The RUSAL Aughinish BRDA is subject to planning permission from Limerick County Council and also IPCC licensing and inspection from the Environmental Protection Agency.’