Houston Images like those from Hungary of homes surrounded by red mud and cars floating through toxic sludge from a nearby metals plant would be unlikely in the U.S., where only two states have similar facilities, according to industry officials and regulators.
Texas and Louisiana are the only states with alumina factories like the one that malfunctioned in Europe, and they store the waste from the mining in a “dry” form, so even if a levee broke, the sludge could not become a threatening river, officials said.
The levees that surround the storage beds also are designed to withstand winds from the most powerful hurricanes, and are periodically checked by state and federal regulators, the officials said.
“I don’t see it happening here,” said Susan Clewis, regional director for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Corpus Christi office, which oversees the state’s two aluminum mining facilities. “Our facilities store a drier material.”
The sludge is a byproduct of refining bauxite into alumina, the basic material for making aluminum.
Alumina plants are scattered around the world, with the 12 largest concentrated in Australia, Brazil and China. The United States produces about 1 million tons of alumina annually, making it 35th in the world for production.
Stephen Gardner, a spokesman for the Washington-based Aluminum Association, said when people from the industry lobbying group first saw the images from Hungary “it didn’t immediately make sense to us” because in the United States the material is dried before being stored.
To have enough material to break a dam and flood a town “is pretty astonishing,” he added.
The three U.S. facilities are not required to “dry stack” the waste. But Sandra Bailey, environmental manager at the Sherwin Alumina Co. in Gregory, Texas, said dry waste is easier to handle and is less toxic.
Most of the waste in Sherwin’s facility is 80 percent solid and strong enough for heavy equipment to ride on, she said.