The Red Danube: Hungary Counts the Costs of an Ecological Disaster

by Thomas Ország-Land (February 2011)

A carcinogenic red dust is settling over a 40 square-kilometre disaster area in Western Hungary. It has been devastated by a flood of caustic sludge released by the ruptured dam of a waste reservoir serving an aluminium production plant. This is probably the worst ecological catastrophe ever experienced in Central Europe.
Ten people were killed. The calamity has caused serious burns and respiratory injury to many, destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes, farms and businesses and precipitated enormous lasting environmental damage. It has also exposed many urgent and hitherto virtually unconsidered questions facing this formerly communist-dominated region over disaster relief and management, transparency in commercial development planning and the establishment of an industrial safety culture. The European Union (EU), to which much of this region belongs, may well examine these issues during Hungary’s six-month turn at the organization’s rotating presidency that began on January 1.
The broken reservoir near the Slovenian, Slovakian and Austrian borders had been identified by the International Commission for the Protection of the River Danube as one of some 100 serious threats to the environment of Europe’s second-longest waterway. Its list includes 32 contaminated sights in Hungary alone, 25 in Romania and 18 in Slovakia. Many dumps are sited along the vulnerable flood plains of the Danube basin that sustains some 83m people in 19 countries.
Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, blames Magyar Aluminium Rt. (MAL), the owners of the local Ajkai Timföldgyár plant, for the red sludge disaster. “Everyone would have perished if this thing had struck at night,“ he declared. “What irresponsibility! I cannot find words.”
Three counties are still in a state of emergency. This is an area of gentle, cultured, rolling hills and ancient churches north of Lake Balaton, hitherto a traditional playground of Europe. Its fertile slopes support vineyards thriving on the region's famous volcanic soil. The rich and varied wildlife stock of the local woodlands has been for generations a magnet for hunters and nature lovers. But the well-watered valleys are now marred by the carcases of deer and wild boar as well as smaller game marked by the lethal red mud.
The plant employing 1,100 local people has resumed production — although specialists have warned that a second rupture of the reservoir walls may still be possible. The financial assets of the company have been frozen and its management placed under government supervision. Emergency legislation has been passed by Parliament in Budapest to provide for its effective re-nationalization.
Árpád Bakonyi, a 30% shareholder of MAL and one of the 30 wealthiest Hungarians, is a close business associate of Ferenc Gyurcsány, the former prime minister whose socialist administration was recently replaced by Orbán’s ultra-conservative government following landslide elections in April. Bakonyi‘s son Zoltán, the managing director of the company, was arrested on criminal negligence charges. He was released by a judge two days later in the absence of evidence.
György Bakondi, the newly appointed government commissioner for disaster mitigation and management, announced less than a month after the flood that all similar waste reservoirs elsewhere in the country had been immediately inspected and found entirely reliable. But Hungarian environment protection groups believe that potential disasters are looming in seven waste reservoirs north of Budapest holding 12m tons of red sludge.
Mayor Károly Tili of Kolontár, the town worst affected by the flood, responds that the authorities had issued a safety certificate for the local reservoir only days before the disaster. “My people are entitled to be very distrustful,” he observes. “We need help — but we cannot trust a word of advice that we receive.“
The dams enclosing the 300×450-metre MAL waste reservoir burst in the afternoon of October 4, releasing 1m cubic-metres of highly alkaline sludge, a byproduct of aluminium manufacture, containing arsenic and a potent mixture of heavy metals. The flood inundated low-lying areas of Kolontár and the adjacent towns of Devecser and Somlóvásárhely. It struck without warning, wrecking homes, toppling cars and heavy farm machinery and ruining agricultural lands.
Local people speak of a “red tsunami”. They were totally unprepared. A small child was torn by the tide from the arms of her stunned mother. A farmer was swept to his death from his four-wheel drive vehicle when he set out to rescue neighbours.
Some 800 Kolontár residents were briefly evacuated. Some 6,000 others in Devecser were ordered to prepare for evaluation at short notice in case the weakened walls of the chemical waste pool should release a second deadly torrent. Ominous movements and fresh cracks are still appearing in the dykes, but the authorities have now erected a second, 1,500-metre long emergency structure to prevent a repeat of the calamity.
The sludge has reduced Kolontár’s lush parks and gardens into burnt wastelands. Public health crews equipped with protective gear are racing to remove the debris of the disaster from the residential areas. A bridge spanning a stream crossing Kolontár has been re-built. The streets are being sprinkled, but the dry weather has turned the sludge into a ubiquitous, fine, ochre-red toxic dust carried by the winds.
A communique issued by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences asserts that the air is safe to breathe provided it is done through appropriate filters — which, as a rule, the residents do not use. One sighs: “The academicians can say what they like. I know what I feel. I feel sick when I breathe in the open for more than a few minutes.”
The government’s efforts to lay the blame on MAL has encouraged insurance companies to decline to compensate property owners on the grounds that the dam burst was probably not a natural disaster. Some residents said they experienced immediate financial pressure from their mortgage providers because their ruined homes had lost their collateral value. The government proposes to provide an emergency 100,000-forint grant to each affected family towards the cost of medicines and winter fuel.
MAL denies liability, but it has offered to set up a 1.5bn-forint ($7.3m) sympathy fund for victims. Zoltán Illés, the secretary of state for the environment, reckons the company will pick up a 20.1bn-forint fine. MAL has a listed capital base of 3bn forints. The company was privatised in 1995 when many obsolete, polluting state-owned enterprises passed into private hands at huge profits. It has access to technologies employed in the West for the conversion of such wastes into harmless substances, but it has never employed them.
Outside the towns, the flood has killed farm animals and ruined croplands and vineyards. It has entered the local waterways, extinguishing all life in the 40km stretch of the River Marcal that fed the red waste from Kolontár into the River Rába and on to the Danube. The contamination triggered alarm in Budapest downstream and all the countries crossed by the river on its way to the Black Sea. The alkaline and arsenic contents of the sludge quickly dispersed in the water. But heavy metals are another matter.
They sink into the ground and may eventually re-surface through plants and animals causing serious disorders high in the food chain. Besides mercury, led and arsenic, the stricken MAL sludge pool contains various oxides of iron (the source of its colour) as well as aluminium, silicon, calcium, titanium and sodium, several of them highly carcinogenic.

This disaster may thus dwarf the measurable effects of a massive cyanide contamination of the River Tisza, a tributary of the Danube, in 2000. That spill of 100,000 cubic meters of polluted water from a gold processing waste reservoir in Baia Mare, Romania, destroyed much aquatic life, but its cyanide content rapidly retreated with the current.
Gábor Figeczky, a specialist for World Wildlife Fund Hungary, is urging the government to seize the opportunity created by its current EU presidency to promote improved safety standards for all mining wastes dumped throughout Central Europe. He thinks the time may well be ripe for such an initiative now that the disaster has concentrated Central European minds within the EU on the need for urgent remedial action.
László Borbély, the environment minister of Romania, has just announced a plan to invest the equivalent of 100m Euros ($133.6m) raised by the EU on making safe a string of industrial waste dumps. The European Commission, the administrative authority of the EU in Brussels, has instructed Bulgaria to identify its major industrial waste hazards by May in preparation for an urgent, comprehensive cleanup programme.
The influential German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung is campaigning for an early extension of the strict West European environment protection standards of the EU to its new members in Central Europe. And the daily De Standaard has called on the European Commission to deploy its powers against entrenched corruption in environmental matters, a legacy of Soviet industrial planning.
Bence Ságvári, a noted sociologist, argues in the Budapest journal Vasárnapi Hirek that some of the human cost of the disaster might have been saved if the local residents had been properly informed of the nature of the chemical wastes accumulated in the MAL reservoir, and the best ways of protecting themselves from such a flood. He perceives the greatest environment threat to the EU in the absence of an industrial safety culture throughout the lands formerly administered by the Kremlin.

THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes on Eastern Europe.


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