Image: Alcoa alumina plant in Point Comfort, Texas
Pat Sullivan  /  AP
In this photo taken Oct. 8, red dust covers the ground around the Alcoa alumina plant as mud is scooped up in Point Comfort, Texas. The red dust is the waste left after alumina is extracted from bauxite ore. According to experts it is unclear whether the red dust is harmful to health.
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updated 10/22/2010 6:00:02 AM ET 2010-10-22T10:00:02

When the wind blows in this Texas Gulf Coast town, the rusty red dust that drifts from the nearby metals plant sometimes creates hazy storms of dust, coating lawns, trucks and traffic lights.

The dust, along with the red mud lakes that kiss Lavaca Bay, are reminders that the small town of Point Comfort and its Alcoa alumina factory are not far — industry-wise — from Hungary, where a red mud reservoir burst earlier this month, unleashing a massive flood of caustic red sludge that covered nearby villages and killed at least nine people.

Many say the disaster in Hungary is unlikely to happen here. But the United States' three alumina refineries — two in Texas and one in Louisiana — have their own pollution worries.

Slideshow: Toxic red sludge floods towns near Budapest (on this page)

In both cases, much of the pollution comes from the waste left after alumina, which is used to manufacture aluminum, is extracted from bauxite ore.

In Hungary, the waste — which is packed with zinc, iron and caustic mercury soda — is stored as mud in manmade reservoirs.

But in the U.S., the refineries don't store the waste as mud. Instead, they dry the mud, which turns into red dust. That dust is then stored in reservoirs that residents call "red mud lakes," and on breezy days, the rust-colored particles blow in the air creating tiny dust storms.

Dust settles on 'everything'
Though U.S. plants remove and recycle much of the caustic soda, making the waste less acidic, the dust still affects the lives of nearby residents.

"It settles on your clothes, on your house, on everything else that you have outside," said Elexia O. Henderson, a 75-year-old retired school administrator who lives in Mount Airy, La., near the Noranda Aluminum facility.

Yet these plants also provide decent paying jobs, leaving residents torn between wanting a quality life and the desire for clean air and water.

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"Chemicals are a necessity in terms of development," Sam Mannan, a chemical engineer and director of the Process Safety Center at Texas A&M University in College Station, said. "That doesn't mean that just because you provided me clothes, housing, cars and all of that, that I should bargain for getting cancer in 50 or 60 years."

In Point Comfort, some of the pollution is ongoing — such as the omnipresent red dust — and some is a legacy from the years before environmental regulations, like the mercury that leaked from a now-defunct unit of the refinery and contaminated the bay in the 1960s and 1970s, making fishing off-limits even today.

Seventy-five miles south of Point Comfort, in Gregory, the dust is still occasionally an issue near the Sherwin Alumina plant though sprinklers try to keep the waste moist to prevent it from blowing away. But in Gramercy, La., some say dust frequently covers everything.

"We all try to just block it out, and we know it's there. You just get to a point in life where you just live here," said Teri Austin, 47, who grew up in Point Comfort and whose father worked at Alcoa for 30 years.

It is unclear whether the red dust is harmful to health. Environmental regulators say the potentially dangerous metals found in the dust are in harmless trace amounts.

Mannan, however, points out that even the most benign dust particles, in large quantities, can be detrimental to those with respiratory problems.

Mercury lurks in bay
In Texas, what lurks in the bay's sediment that poses a greater threat. Deep below the blue waters are thousands of pounds of mercury that leaked for decades, making the bay the nation's largest wholly aquatic Superfund site — a designation the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awards sites so contaminated they require complex, long-term cleanups.

"I actually saw the beads of mercury running into the bay," recalls Eddy Arnold Jr., who worked for 12 years in the plant's now-shutdown alkaline facility. "I told my supervisor and he said 'well, you didn't see anything.'"

Then, the EPA was in its infancy and regulation was lax. Still, mercury's dangers were known. Arnold said workers took weekly urine tests to check for mercury.

Since then, Pittsburgh-based Alcoa — which notes this was all legal then — has invested nearly $100 million to clean the bay.

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It dredged 200,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment, dumping it on 400-acre Dredge Island, a manmade land mass in the bay, said Gary Baumgarten, the EPA's remedial project manager for the site. Some fishing sites remain off-limits and signs warn of potential risks of eating the fish.

Alcoa also monitors groundwater, closed the problematic processing facility and plugged leaking areas.

"Given the scope and the scale of that work ... it will take some time until conclusions are drawn," Rob Bear, Alcoa's director of environmental affairs, said.

In the years when mercury was still leaking, Alcoa dominated life in Point Comfort. Nearly everyone worked there. In school, students didn't have No. 2 pencils. Instead, Austin did her work with shiny silver pencils that had "Alcoa" stenciled on the side.

'What was is doing to us?'
Alcoa also paid for fresh paint jobs for cars after the caustic elements of the red dust ate away the color, Austin said.

"Everybody had really nicely painted vehicles in Point Comfort when we were growing up," she said. "But if that's what it was doing to the cars, my God, what was it doing to us?"

Austin is also bitter about what happened to her father, who died at age 65, seven years after he diagnosed with an asbestos-linked cancer.

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Like many structures built in the early 20th century, the plant was packed with asbestos. Once it became clear the popular fiber was harmful to people's health and regulations were put in place, Alcoa began monitoring the material, said Mike Belwood, an Alcoa spokesman.

Today, federal and state regulations ensure cleaner operations, and the companies are required to monitor air emissions, groundwater and other pollutants.

Yet things aren't perfect. Between 2005 and 2009, Texas regulators fined Alcoa $152,111 for 27 different violations.

Sherwin Alumina was fined just over $48,000 during the same period for 12 violations. Louisiana environmental regulators fined the Gramercy facility $27,000 for one citation during the past five years.

Generally, people keep quiet about pollution, Arnold says, because they want the jobs.

"But if they're killing us, we don't need that cause we're not going to enjoy the fruits of our labor," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Toxic red sludge floods towns near Budapest

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  1. The break in the reservoir near Akja, Hungary, is seen on Tuesday, Oct. 12. Cracks have also appeared in another section. (Sandor H. Szabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Reuters photographer Bernadett Szabo has her boots sprayed after walking amid red toxic sludge in the flooded village of Devecser, Hungary, on Oct. 6. (Laszlo Balogh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. An aerial view shows the cracked northern wall of the reservoir containing red mud from the alumina factory on Oct. 10. (Gyoergy Varga / MTI via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Toxic sludge floods the streets of the Hungarian village of Devecser, Saturday, Oct. 9. (Laszlo Balogh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The level of the sludge is seen on the wall of a house in Kolontar, Hungary, Oct. 10. (Balint Porneczi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A rescue worker inspects a house in the flooded village of Devecser, Oct. 9. (Bernadett Szabo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Employees of the Romanian National Administration of Waters take samples on Oct. 9 from the Danube river in Bazias, Hungary, where the Danube enters Romania. Fears for the ecosystem of the Danube, Europe's second longest river, appeared to recede somewhat on Oct. 8 as readings showed contamination levels from the Oct. 4 toxic sludge disaster were down. (Daniel Mihailescu / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A summer hat and personal belongings are covered by sludge in a house in Kolontar, Hungary, Oct. 10. (Samuel Kubani / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. An elderly resident cleans his house in Devecser, Hungary, on Oct. 9. (Balint Porneczi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, front left, is interviewed during his tour of the sludge-hit village of Kolontar, 103 miles southwest of Budapest, on Thursday, Oct. 07. (Balazs Mohai / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Jozsef Toth, an official of the Hungarian enviromental service, checks a sample of water from the Raba River on the banks of the river in Gyor, about 800 miles from Budapest on Oct. 7. The toxic spill reached the Danube river on Thursday, threatening to contaminate the waterway's ecosystem. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. An aerial view of streets covered with red mud in Devecser, 100 miles southwest of Budapest, on Wednesday, Oct. 6. (Sandor H. Szabo / MTI via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A man stands in his destroyed home in the flooded village of Kolontar, 93 miles west of Budapest on Wednesday. (Laszlo Balogh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A resident rests on a chair in the garden of his house while rescuing his belongings in Devecser, on Wednesday. (Tamas Kovacs / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The eye of a soldier is washed with mineral water after burning red mud spattered in his eye during cleaning operation in Kolontar on Wednesday. (Zsolt Szigetvary / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Excavators working at the broken dyke of the reservoir that contained red mud of an alumina factory near Ajka on Wednesday. (Sandor H. Szabo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Sunflowers stand in poisonous red mud in a field in Somlovasarhely, 105 miles southwest of Budapest, on Wednesday. (Tamas Kovacs / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A wheel loader dumps plaster into River Marcal in Vinar, 114 miles west of Budapest, on Wednesdy, in order to prevent poisonous chemical sludge from reaching the rivers Raba and Danube. (Tamas Kovacs / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Dead fish float on the Marcal River at the bridge of Morichida about 93 miles west from Budapest on Wednesday. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. An aerial view of the broken dyke of a reservoir containing red mud of an alumina factory near Ajka, 96 miles southwest of Budapest, on Wednesday. (Sandor H. Szabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Damaged cars are piled up by the flood of red mud in Devecser, on Wednesday. (Balazs Mohai / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Residents return to check their homes in Kolontar, southwest of Budapest, on Wednesday. Hungarian crews worked for a second day to prevent seepage from a sludge reservoir of an alumina plant in western Hungary as rescue units searched for missing people in flooded villages. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Civil Protection Service workers clean sludge-covered streets in Kolontar, southwest of Budapest, on Wednesday. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Jozsef Holczer works in his yard flooded by toxic mud in Kolontar, on Wednesday. (Bela Szandelszky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A villager is reflected in a flood of toxic mud, while walking through his backyard in Kolontar, on Wednesday. (Bela Szandelszky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Young women pass by firemen as they carry their belongings in red mud covered a street in Devecser, southwest of Budapest, on Tuesday, Oct. 5. (Balazs Mohai / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A Hungarian soldier wearing a chemical protection gear walks through a street flooded by toxic in the town of Devecser, on Tuesday. (Bela Szandelszky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. An aerial view of the red mud covered streets and overturned vehicles in a yard in Devecser, southwest of Budapest, on Tuesday. (Gyoergy Varga / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A pet dog walks in the toxic mud on Tuesday, in the villages of Devecser and Kolontar. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. An aerial photo taken on Tuesday, of the broken wall of the reservoir of the Ajka alumina factory. (Gyoergy Varga / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. A woman observes the damage in the town of Devecser on Tuesday. About 35.3 million cubic feet of sludge has leaked from the reservoir and affected an estimated area of 15.4 square miles. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. A woman rescues belongings in the villages flooded by a red toxic mud from the sludge reservoir of the Ajka aluminium works on Tuesday, in the villages of Devecser and Kolontar. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. A man stands knee-deep in toxic sludge as cleanup efforts begin in Devecser on Tuesday. Seven towns near the plant, including Kolontal, Devecser and Somlovasarhely, were affected. (Bernadett Szabo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Tunde Erdelyi, left, saves her cat, while Janos Kis, right, walks into their yard flooded by toxic mud in Devecser on Tuesday. (Bela Szandelszky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A man salvages some belongings in Devecser on Monday, Oct. 4. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Firefighters wade through mud flowing in the streets next to a timber trailer in Devecser on Monday. (Lajos Nagy / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. People wait to be rescued from a rooftop in Devecser on Monday. (Lajos Nagy / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. The broken wall of the reservoir of the Ajka alumina factory in Kolontar. (Gyoergy Varga / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Chemical tide kills at least 4

  1. Transcript of: Chemical tide kills at least 4

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: In just about every city or town in this country you can find a place where toxic chemicals are stored. And an incident overseas tonight has a lot of people wondering, could this kind of thing happen here? And what have we done, all of us, to our natural world ? It's sludge from an industrial plant , tons of it, flowing through several towns in Hungary . At least four people are dead, over 400 others affected physically. And tonight there are fears of a major environmental catastrophe. We get more from NBC 's Stephanie Gosk .

    STEPHANIE GOSK reporting: In this amateur video it almost looks like a mudslide, flooding streets and destroying homes. But there is nothing natural about this disaster. A waste reservoir at an aluminum plant in Hungary burst today, unleashing 35.3 million cubic feet of red chemical sludge. Four people are dead, another six are still missing. In some places the hazardous tide rose six feet.

    Unidentified Man:

    GOSK: 'My father had to push my mother out the window,' this man says. 'He's in the hospital now.' The waste, created in the production of aluminum, is filled with heavy metals, including lead, and can burn the skin. More than 120 people were brought to the hospital with injuries.

    Unidentified Woman:

    GOSK: 'I have burns up to my chest,' this woman says. 'It feels like it is still burning.' Hungary 's president declared an emergency in three counties and met with some of the victims. On top of the human tragedy officials say it is an ecological disaster. The sludge is dangerously close to polluting the Danube River and could kill local wildlife. The government has launched an investigation into what they say is clearly a manmade disaster. In a statement, the company that runs the plant said there were no signs that the reservoir was about to break and that the waste is not considered toxic by European Union standards. The nearly 7,000 people swamped by chemical sludge may disagree. Stephanie Gosk, NBC News, London.

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