FP Explainer

What Happens to a Place After It's Covered in Toxic Sludge?

Nothing good.

View photos of Hungary's toxic sludge disaster.

Hungarian authorities are currently struggling to contain the damage from a deluge of toxic sludge on Monday that resulted from a burst dam at an aluminum processing plant. At least four people were killed and over 100 injured by the 35 million cubic feet of sludge, which knocked cars off the road, burned through victims clothes and affected a 15 square mile area. Hundreds of people in several towns had to be evacuated by police. So just how long will it take for the region to recover from the sludge?

It depends on what's in it. Greenpeace workers who took samples of the sludge on Tuesday are having them tested to determine what exactly rescue workers will be dealing with. Experts believe the substance, a byproduct of refining bauxite into aluminum, is likely to contain heavy metals, such as lead, as well as high levels of arsenic. If these chemicals are present in high amounts, the area's soil could be contaminated for years to come. Children and pregnant women are most at risk, from high levels of lead, can cause birth defects and brain damage.

Once the sludge dries, the lead may be even more dangerous. If inhaled, the sludge dust can cause respiratory problems, even lung cancer.

Arsenic, which can lead to nerve damage, stomach pain, and some types of cancer, is extremely difficult to remove from soil and can be transferred into crops, threatening agricultural yields for years.

The most dangerous immediate factor is the sludge's high alkaline level. The aluminum plant's runoff has an extremely high ph level of around 13, meaning it can burn through the skin of those who come in contact with it. Most of the injuries reported so far have been alkali burns.

After the sludge itself is cleaned up, the affected soil will likely remain alkali, making it unsuitable for planting, and will have to be treated with acid before agriculture can resume (assuming it hasn't been poisoned by lead.)

Hungarian authorities say the sludge has not yet entered the region's water supply, but EU authorities worry that it could reach the Danube, one of Europe's main waterways, and be carried to countries downstream. This could be catastrophic. When a cyanide-contaminated storage pond burst into local rivers near Baia Mare, Romania, in 2000, it wiped out all fish and plant life in a several hundred kilometer swathe. Two years after the accident, fish populations still hadn't returned to their normal levels.

Authorities say the sludge itself will take a year to clean up. But it's clear that the region will be feeling the health and economic effects of the spill for years to come.

ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images

FP Explainer

Could U.S. Officials Be Charged for Causing the Financial Crisis?

No. It's not against the law for politicians to screw up.

Iceland's parliament voted this week to refer former Prime Minister Geir Haarde to a special court where he may face charges of criminal negligence during the collapse of the country's financial sector, which left taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars in debt. According to a government investigation, Haarde's administration missed a number of specific opportunities in 2008 to limit the damage of the impending banking meltdown to the greater Icelandic economy. If convicted, Haarde could potentially face up to two years in jail. Could U.S. officials ever face charges for the market crash and the ensuing recession?

No. Even if it could be proved that regulatory decisions or lax oversight in the run-up to the crash directly contributed to the chaos that followed, former President George W. Bush, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, and other officials probably don't have much to worry about. The century-old Icelandic law under which Haarde might be charged -- which has never before been invoked -- stipulates that ministers can be held responsible not just for actions that put the country in danger, but for not taking action to prevent that danger. There's simply no equivalent crime in the United States -- officials can't be held legally responsible for simply doing a bad job.

They're probably safe from civil lawsuits as well. Under U.S. law, government officials are granted immunity for actions conducted during the course of their duties, unless they knowingly violate "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." So unless U.S. regulators were purposely colluding with companies to defraud investors, they can't be held responsible.

That might change, however. The doctrine of official immunity is being challenged by convicted terrorist Jose Padilla's lawsuit against former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo. Padilla has accused Yoo of violating his constitutional rights by writing a memo when at the Office of Legal Counsel arguing that the U.S. citizen be classified as an enemy combatant and writing others arguing that these combatants could be subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques." Over the Obama administration's objections, a California judge denied Yoo's request to have the suit thrown out on the basis of official immunity. The motion has been appealed, but in order for Padilla to receive damages, he will have to prove that not only did Yoo give  bad legal advice, but that he knowingly or incompetently overlooked constitutional rights that no one could possibly dispute -- a tough standard to meet.

The private ratings agencies and investment banks involved in the subprime mortgage crisis don't have quite the same legal protections as government officials and are fighting suits from state and federal regulators.

Iceland's law is pretty unique, but countries under the Westminster system -- those based on the British parliament -- traditionally operate under a principle of "ministerial responsibility." This holds that ministers are responsible for the actions of the personnel in their ministry and are expected to resign in cases of gross incompetence or face charges for criminal actions, even if they weren't directly involved in the deed. In practice, this is almost never enforced anymore.

So while Iceland may have started a trend as the first government to collapse because of the financial crisis, we probably won't be seeing more heads of state following Haarde into the dock.    

Thanks to Peter Schuck, professor emeritus at Yale Law School, Zephyr Teachout, associate professor at the Fordham University School of Law, and Scott Nelson, attorney at Public Citizen. 

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images