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Hungary’s red sludge: That would never happen here — or would it?

You see a mammoth red wave of sludge flowing toward you, inexorably swallowing everything in its path, and when you climb high enough so that only your feet are exposed you realize your shoes offer no protection as the toxic stew begins to eat throu

You see a mammoth red wave of sludge flowing toward you, inexorably swallowing everything in its path, and when you climb high enough so that only your feet are exposed you realize your shoes offer no protection as the toxic stew begins to eat through your skin. Your lungs start to burn and your breathing becomes labored, but you cling desperately, hoping beyond hope for rescue.

It sounds like the latest horror film released just in time to capitalize on the rush of teenagers heading to the local multiplex for a Halloween fright. Unfortunately, it just happened in Hungary.

On Oct. 4, a reservoir designed to contain waste from the manufacture of aluminum failed, releasing tons of highly caustic, red sludge. This deluge inundated three towns, then entered fresh-water tributaries of the Danube — Europe’s second longest river.

The immediate effects are well-known and publicized: dead people, fish, rivers swollen an otherworldly, bloated red color, and thousands of people left homeless. The really scary part is that these horrible problems are only the beginning as the heavy metals leach into soil and groundwater, possibly contaminating the area and drinking water for decades.

An eerily similar situation
Now sit back and think: At least in the U.S. we have a well-established Environmental Protection Agency with procedures that have been in place for years to prevent a nightmare like this from ever happening here — except for the fact that an eerily similar situation occurred less than two years ago in middle America.

In December 2008 a containment pond holding spent coal ash at the Kingston Fossil plant in Tennessee collapsed, releasing over a billion — with a b — gallons of the gray slurry over 300 acres of pristine countryside and into the Emory River, which is part of the network that supplies fresh drinking water to the entire region.

Coal ash is what’s left after you’ve burned coal in a boiler to generate steam and power, and trust me when I tell you these leftovers aren’t pretty — you wouldn’t ask the server for a box to take home, that’s for sure. I used to work for a company where we generated a portion of our own power from coal, and was responsible for completing the annual EPA environmental release forms; the residual materials include lead, mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals. The Kingston disaster released 140,000 pounds of arsenic alone into the Emory River, more than double the amount released into U.S. waterways by every power plant combined in 2007.

So … I sit back and think about these disasters and kind of feel powerless — years, decades even, of industrial-age byproducts build up and are catastrophically released in an eye-blink. What can you do in the face of such an overwhelming, cataclysmic force?

Begin with self-education, raising awareness
For a start, I’m going to educate myself on the issues, raise awareness, and hold my politicians and government accountable to fix not only the immediate, highly visible problems like an ochre river completely devoid of life, but also the underlying health effects and fresh-water pollution the heavy metals will cause for years into the future. We all have to start somewhere.

(To learn more about the Kingston disaster, I encourage you to read the excellent article “Black Tide,” by Sean Flynn in GQ. I also recommend checking out the series of photos — “Dirty Pretty Things” — by J. Henry Fair. To learn more about the red sludge disaster in Hungary, turn on your news or read a paper — because it’s happening right now.)

Robert Walsh is the editor in chief of Surge, a 501(c)3 Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization that focuses on clean, safe water for life. Since its start in 2008, Surge has brought clean water to 20,000 people in six countries.