On October 4 the collapse of an impoundment structure at the MAL Hungarian Aluminum Production & Trade plant in Ajka, Hungary spilled more than 200 million gallons of toxic red sludge that killed seven people, sent more than 100 to the hospital with chemical burns, and polluted waterways 100 miles southwest of Budapest. The sludge contains heavy metals that burned those who came into contact with it. Hungarian authorities sought to dilute the heavily alkaline sludge by dumping gypsum into tributary rivers and opening sluice gates to raise water levels. Hungarian environmental NGOs claimed that they had urged the government for years to control risks from the impoundment at the plant, but the company maintained that the waste was not considered toxic under EU standards. By October 7 the sludge had reached the Danube River, though with diminished alkalinity of 8.5 pH that was killing fewer fish than in the vicinity of the plant. Fears that a second impoundment structure will collapse led to the evacuation of the village of Kolantar on October 9.
Last week representatives from more than 190 nations gathered in Tianjin, China for the final meeting in preparation for the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP-16) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which will open in Cancun, Mexico on November 29. Unfortunately, little progress was made and few are expecting any dramatic results from the Cancun meeting. China’s representative reportedly called the U.S. delegate a “preening pig” given the lack of U.S. action on cap-and-trade legislation. Todd Stern, the chief U.S. climate negotiator, continued to promise that the U.S. would reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 17% by 2020, in line with its Copenhagen pledge and what the Waxman-Markey legislation that passed the House, but not the Senate, was expected to produce. Disagreement also continued on the size of a fund to assist developing countries in controlling their GHG emissions, though some reports suggest that progress was made on logistical details concerning how the fund would operate.
With cap-and-trade legislation now being disavowed by congressional candidates, many are discussing the reasons why the Senate failed to act and fingers are being pointed in several directions. Columnist Tom Friedman identifies five factors: “Mindless tribal partisanship,”
“A TV network acting as the political enforcer of the Republican Party,” “Special interests buying policy,” “Politicians who put their interests before the country’s,” and “A political system that cannot manage multiple policy shifts at once -- even though it needs to.” Thomas L. Friedman, “An X-Ray of Dysfunction,” New York Times, Oct. 9, 2010.
On Thursday October 7, 23 students from my Environmental Law class made a field trip to EPA to watch an oral argument before the Environmental Appeals Board (EAB) in a case challenging a permit for an oil drilling platform off the coast of Alaska. The five students who arrived first were escorted to the argument by the Board’s clerk and reported that it was a fascinating argument with some judges sharply challenging Region 10’s seeming deference to Shell Oil in drafting the permit. However, 18 students who arrived a few minutes late due to heavy traffic then waited for an hour in EPA’s lobby after clearing security because the guards insisted that they needed an escort to the argument who was expected shortly, but who never materialized. Thus, even though the argument was being conducted in a room with plenty of empty seats only a few doors away from where the students were required to wait, EPA security would not let them in the Administrative Courtroom. Even the U.S. Supreme Court allows latecomers to attend its arguments so long as there is space in the courtroom. We had submitted all of the students’ names to EPA a week in advance and every student who said they were coming made the pilgrimage from Baltimore. I am amazed that this happened and I doubt if the students will be eager to visit the EAB again.