What is that red mud?

The toxic red sludge that gushed from a Magyar Aluminum (MAL) storage pond in Hungary is a necessary byproduct of the Bayer Process, which is the method used for the entire 40 million tons of alumina produced annually. This alumina is further processed into aluminum alloys, which we then enjoy as bicycles.

The damaged reservoir near an alumina plant is seen from the air in Kolontar, 150 km (93.2 miles) west of Budapest, October 9, 2010. Hungary's premier warned on Saturday that the wall of a damaged industrial reservoir was likely to collapse, threatening a second spill of toxic red sludge, and a nearby village was evacuated as a precaution. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh (HUNGARY - Tags: ENVIRONMENT DISASTER IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Besides recycling, the primary source of aluminum is an aluminum ore called bauxite. This rock contains aluminum minerals in a mixture with iron oxides, clay, and even a little titanium dioxide. In the Bayer Process, bauxite ore is crushed and then washed in a pressure vessel with sodium hydroxide (NaOH) at 200°C. Sodium hydroxide — a very powerful caustic agent — dissolves the alumina.

The waste product is filtered out and is called “red mud” in the industry. The red coloration comes from the concentration of iron oxides. Before the advent of evil, anti-business environmental regulations in the 70s, bauxite processing factories dumped this nasty sludge into rivers and oceans and even straight onto the ground. These days, red mud is collected in open pits, where the mud can dry into a red clay. Land where red mud is dumped is lost forever to any kind of building or agriculture.

Residents clean up their homes in the flooded village of Devecser, 150 km (93 miles) west of Budapest October 8, 2010. Pollution levels from a red sludge spill in Hungary have subsided in the Danube and there is no risk of a biological or environmental catastrophe in the major European waterway, Hungarian officials said on Friday. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo(HUNGARY - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT)

It was one of these open pits that failed at the Ajka alumina plant in Hungary on October 4, when a retaining dam failed spilling nearly 300 million gallons of red mud in a five foot tall wave that inundated Kolontár, Devecser, and other nearby villages.

The nastiness comes primarily from the high sodium oxide (Na2O) content of red mud. Much of the lye is recovered as part of alumina processing, but what remains is still very highly basic and kills plants, fish, and people and causes severe chemical burns. Authorities downstream of the spill are pumping vinegar into the river in an attempt to neutralize the base.

Locals cross a pontoon bridge next to a broken bridge in the flooded village of Kolontar, 150 km (93 miles) west of Budapest October 7, 2010. A toxic red sludge spill from an alumina plant in western Hungary had reached the Danube by midday on Thursday, a spokesman for Hungarian disaster crews was cited by national news agency MTI as saying.  REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh (HUNGARY - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT)

Besides the water, red mud is about 40% iron oxide. Besides the lye, what remains is unextracted aluminum oxide (10%), silicon dioxide (10%), calcium oxide (10%), and titanium dioxide (5%). Though there are elevated levels of heavy metals in the red sludge (chromium 660 mg/kg, arsenic 110 mg/kg and mercury 1.2 mg/kg according to Greenpeace funded soil analysis), the levels are not considered to be dangerous to the environment. The main danger is the very high pH and physical destructive power of a huge quantity of mud. The huge volume of sediment also kills water life.

A dead fish is seen in the Marcal river in Koronco, 160 km (99 miles) west of Budapest October 8, 2010. Pollution levels from a red sludge spill in Hungary have subsided in the Danube and there is no risk of a biological or environmental catastrophe in the major European waterway, Hungarian officials said on Friday.   REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh (HUNGARY - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT ANIMALS)

So far, eight people are known to have been killed by the initial red sludge deluge. Over 150 people were injured, 45 remain in the hospital. 280 homes were damaged. Magyar Aluminum has offered €360 in compensation to each affected person, which is barely enough to buy a lousy aluminum bike.

 

3 Comments

  • Tahoe
    October 11, 2010 - 8:43 pm | Permalink

    which is why I pile all the peelings from my Epic Burritos into a little ball and put the ball in the recycling bin.

  • October 11, 2010 - 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Very, very sad … and I never knew about this. As for the paltry compensation – the hallmark of every environmental abuse, especially amid a population that is virtually powerless to fight back. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  • October 12, 2010 - 10:07 pm | Permalink

    =v= When I crash my bike and my wheels turn into epic tacos, I put them in the same recycling bin.

  • Leave a Reply