Six of the Most Deadly Toxic Sludge Spills in Recent History
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A containment pond dam broke in Kolontar, Hungary, yesterday, sending a river of toxic red waste sludge—a byproduct of aluminum production—sweeping through nearby villages. The red mud killed at least four people, injured 120, and left others with chemical burns.
Aberfan Disaster, Wales, 1966
Another example of a sludge flood caused by heavy rain, the Aberfan Disaster was particularly horrific: Of the 144 victims, 116 were children at the village primary school, which was situated directly beneath an unstable hillside heaped with coal mine tailings.
Since the early 1900s, the coal mine in Aberfan had been depositing slag and waste rock on top of an unstable hillside of porous sandstone with underground springs.
After days of heavy rain in October of 1966, a huge section of the waste material liquefied and broke away from the hill, rushing downhill towards Aberfan. Over 10 million gallons of coal slurry slammed into cottages, farms, and the Aberfan Primary School, where children had just arrived for the last day of class before a week-long break.
As a result of the disaster, the British government enacted the Mines and Quarries Act of 1969, aimed at regulating waste heaps from mining operations.
Baia Mare Cyanide Spill, Romania, 2000
At around 10:00 p.m. on January 30, 2000, a holding pond dam at the Aurul gold and silver mine broke, spilling over 26 million gallons of toxic waste water. Between 50 and 100 tons of cyanide, copper, and other heavy metals went with it.
The spill affected the water supplies of 24 towns in Romania, and killed vast numbers of fish—who are 1,000 times more sensitive to cyanide than humans—in Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary.
Contaminated water traveled into the rivers Sasar, Lapus, Somes, Tisza, and Danube, eventually reaching the Black Sea about four weeks after the initial spill.
Buffalo Creek Disaster, West Virginia, 1972
On February 26, 1972, a coal slurry dam in Logan County, West Virginia, broke, unleashing around 132 million gallons of waste water and sludge from the Pittston Coal Company's mining operation. The 30-foot high wall of black water descended onto the small mining towns in Buffalo Creek Hollow, killing 125, injuring more than 1,000, and destroying more than 500 homes.
The impoundment dam that broke had been declared "satisfactory" by a federal mining inspector just four days prior to the disaster.
Kingston Fossil Plant Coal Slurry Spill, Tennessee, 2008
The Kingston slurry spill took place at a coal-fired power plant in Roane County, Tennessee. On December 22, 2008, a dam holding "coal fly ash slurry"—the watered-down runoff from burning coal—broke.
All told, 1.1 billion gallons of slurry escaped, covering 300 acres of adjacent land and streaming into creeks that feed the Tennessee River, killing off fish and marine left as it went. As the water receded, 25-foot walls of ash sediment were left behind.
The containment pond that ruptured dated from the 1960s, and according to local residents had been repaired "every year" since 2001. Freezing temperatures and heavy rain were blamed for the break. The Kingston spill remains the largest release of ash slurry in United States history.
Photo by Brian Stansberry, used under a Creative Commons license.
The Martin County Sludge Spill, Kentucky, 2000
On October 11, 2000, the bottom of a coal sludge pond gave way, sending millions of gallons of sludge into abandoned mine shafts below. 306 million gallons of the coal slurry exited the mouths of the old mine shafts, making its way into Wolf Creek and Coldwater Fork, two tributaries of the Tug Fork River. All aquatic life in the two tributaries was killed, and the sludge contaminated the water supplies of tens of thousands of residents.
Massey Energy, which owned the containment pond, paid a fine in 2002, for the paltry sum of $5,600.
The Martin County spill was the subject of the 2005 documentary Sludge.
Photo from Robert Salyer and Sludge.
Ala Wai Canal Sewer Sludge Spill, Hawaii, 2006
Mining operations aren't the only places that sludge spills can happen. In March 2006, a broken sewer line threatened to send sewage into homes and hotels along Honolulu's famed Waikiki Beach. Rather than face the wrath of angry hotel owners and residents, Honolulu's mayor chose to divert 48 million gallons of untreated sewer sludge around the treatment plant and directly into the Ala Wai Canal.
The sludge forced the closure of Waikiki beach for high bacteria levels. One man died from septic shock after falling into the contaminated water at Ala Wai Harbor, although his death was complicated by other health issues.