The political implications of the Hungarian environmental disaster

There was a difference of opinion between Paul and “Latefor” about the merits of discussing the political implications of the Ajka disaster. “Latefor” is more concerned about the human and environmental aspects and thinks that talking about politics in connection with the red sludge is “premature” if not immoral. I hate to disappoint him: politics has already entered the scene.

Ferenc Papcsák, the high priest of the witchhunt against opposition politicians, only hours after the disaster announced that he is investigating the connection between Lajos Tolnay and Ferenc Gyurcsány. Lajos Tolnay owns 40% of MAL Magyar Alumínuium Zrt. Two other Hungarians, Árpád Bakonyi and Béla Petrusz, each have a 30% share of the business. Apparently Papcsák is initiating an investigation because Tolnay earlier had an interest in a business venture in which Ferenc Gyurcsány was also involved. And what does that have to do with the bursting of a reservoir in Ajka? Surely, nothing. However, Papcsák and his fellow “investigators” have seemingly infinite imaginations and are quite capable of coming out with some startling discovery that will somehow manage to involve the former prime minister in this environmental disaster as well.

The other side wasn’t that speedy but by yesterday the opposition discovered that Zoltán Illés, the undersecretary in charge of the environment, had appointed his former secretary, Andrea Zay, to head the Central Transdanubian Inspectorate for the Environment, Conservancy, and Waterways. This agency only two weeks ago inspected the reservoir and found everything in good order. Implication: something is very wrong with Andrea Zay’s agency.

Meanwhile rumors are flying in the three or four villages that are currently covered with the red sludge. The population of these villages, the very ones who seemed to have been totally unaware of the danger until now and who were absolutely unprepared for such an eventuality, suddenly discovered deep in their souls that they have in fact been worried sick about the reservoir’s bursting one day. It was just a question of time, they say. Some of the inhabitants now claim that “it was visible to the naked eye that an incredible weight was pushing the walls of the reservoir.”  Although I have never seen such a reservoir I very much doubt that passers-by could possibly see the walls of the reservoir bulging out because of the weight of the sludge inside. Some people also claim that the company must have known that there was a problem because they were bringing in tons and tons of “soil” to strengthen the walls. The problem is that the walls are not made of earth but scoria, slag or cinders.

Zoltán Illés, the undersecretary in charge, is about the worst person to handle such a situation. He tends to be hysterical and is prone to make unsubstantiated statements that only upset everybody. Even before serious examinations of the sludge and the environmental damage had taken place, he was talking about 50 million m3 of grey and 30 million m3 ofred sludge being in the reservoirs and that the latter is “slightly radioactive and causes cancer.” As it turned out, the amount of sludge that now covers about 10 hectares is not millions of cubic meters but only 600-700,000, which is still a lot but far from the amount Illés was talking about. Moreover, the cancer causing agent is less of a problem than the fact that the sludge is alkaline. That is, caustic; it was this property of the sludge that caused the burns hundreds of people suffered. It is the same property that will do so much damage to the environment and to the animal life on land and in the water.

Illés also seems to have known that the company is responsible for what happened and therefore the “total cost of the damage” must be borne by the firm. That is again a typical Illés move: jumping to conclusions. In order to ascertain guilt there must be a thorough investigation. For example, some engineers claim that the break in the wall of the reservoir was most likely caused by the inordinate amount of rainfall this year and that such a break is very sudden and unpredictable. The real problem is the way this sludge is being stored. I heard somebody from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences who claims that their team of geologists came up with a way to use this sludge for some practical purpose but no one was interested in it. This particular reservoir was built twenty-five years ago. Apparently when a reservoir is completely filled it is buried with scoria and a thin layer of earth is put on top. So, from the outside everything looks fine but underneath this sludge is sitting there for ever and ever. Illés added that if the company can’t cough up the money then the Hungarian government will have to take care of the situation and naturally Hungary must ask the European Union’s help. As we will see later, Viktor Orbán has other ideas about European Union assistance.

Then there appeared a whole slew of “experts” with their pronouncements on the nature of the red sludge. Most of these experts haven’t been on the scene and they are unfamiliar with the measurements taken on the spot. With the help of the media they are only confusing the public that naturally doesn’t have the foggiest idea what this thing is all about. Greenpeace spokesmen were especially irresponsible when they claimed that satellite photos show that there was a crack in the wall already before the accident. It turned out that their information came from a tabloid called Napi Ász and it is phony. Another environmental group called “Levegő” (Air) which is heavily politicized and usually takes up causes close to the heart of the Right insisted on a “reexamination” of the privatization of this old state-owned factory with a view to learning more about who is responsible for this tragedy! Sure, twenty years later! I suggest taking a look at the two articles Zsófia Mihancsik wrote about the political aspects of the tragedy in Galamus. The first is about Zoltán Illés’s irresponsible statements and the other about the misinformation being spread by the Hungarian media and the environmentalists’ fertile imaginations and their political motives.

And finally, Viktor Orbán made an appearance in Kolontár, the village most heavily damaged. He came to the conclusion that certain parts of the village cannot be restored: “This area must be left untouched as a monument to this tragedy.” Again, we don’t know what will happen in the future. As we know, Mother Nature is very strong. It might take ten or twenty years, but it is very possible that life will reappear in the area, especially with some help from the people.

The Hungarian prime minister again returned to his favorite theme of a strong Hungary that needs no help. “Hungary is strong enough to solve the problem alone. Within days a fund will be established to assist the region.” Hungary will ask for the help of “rich Hungarians living abroad.” My first reaction was: what about rich Hungarians in Hungary, like Sándor Csányi, Sándor Demján, Gábor Széles, all close politically to Fidesz and the current government? He added that the European Union also has a fund for such eventualities and  “Hungary may get some assistance from there.” However, Hungary will not ask for help because Hungary is entitled to it. At least Orbán is consistent: a strong Hungary that needs no outside help and if outside help comes it is because it is due. I’m curious what will happen if countries or non-Hungarian individuals offer help. Will he turn them down?

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Paul
Guest
Blimey. Not only do I get a namecheck in this esteemed blog, but also just about everything I half jokingly predicted has already started to happen! But, seriously, OV and his merry men have got to be really careful on this one, as the whole world is watching (three days after it happened, this was top of the 6 and 7 o’clock R4 news bulletins tonight). And, even after its ‘nine days’ are up, it will very quickly become a news item again if anything ‘odd’ happens. VO has got to ensure that this mess is sorted out and cleared up promptly and properly. If the outside world get the slightest hint of it being used to settle political scores, or of critical delays while idiot politicians play around, Hungary will be the laughing stock of the world. Hungarians usually have this bizarre idea that the rest of the world admires Hungary and Hungarians, whereas, in reality, the rest of the world can’t even place Hungary on the map, thinks Hungarians speak Russian and has absolutely no idea of Hungary’s history. But, and this is the critical point, the rest of the world (or at least the English speaking, Western… Read more »
Mark
Guest
“Then there appeared a whole slew of “experts” with their pronouncements on the nature of the red sludge. Most of these experts haven’t been on the scene and they are unfamiliar with the measurements taken on the spot.” The confusion though is understandable. If you look at most of the industry information on “red mud” it states that this is a “non-hazardous waste product” from alumina refining. Clearly we know if only from the burns people have suffered that to call it “non-hazardous” is somewhat to stretch the definition of the term way beyond any of its common uses in the English languages. We also know that aluminium producers make considerable efforts to keep this “non-hazardous” waste from seeping into the water table. Some people say it can be disposed of easily – however, I am concerned about what I read about the Austrailian concerns about the environmental impact of “red mud” All that having been said, I’m a little dismayed that no-one has raised the problem of storing and disposing of “red mud” and the conditions under which it can be held. I suspect personally that what we are dealing with is a situation where large companies have been… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mark: “I suspect personally that what we are dealing with is a situation where large companies have been able to take a cavalier attitude to environmental standards”
Mark, since I had written the piece I listened to a scientist from MTA who was the member of the team that came up with using the red sludge profitably. It would solve the problem of the waste and someone apparently could make a bundle in three and a half years. But the trouble is with these research institutes attached to MTA that instead of trying to “sell” their ideas to businessmen with money they turn in their ideas to the ministries. Naturally, nothing happened. They thanked the report and that was the end of it. Apparently, in the sludge there is a lot of iron and titanium which can be extracted from the sludge and the titanium is extremely valuable. The rest, mostly sand, could be used for glass making.
Yes, the investment would be large but the profits considerable. Just in Hungary there is enough sludge that a factory could produce iron and titanium for 35 years! If you have time listen to the conversation it is worth the time:
http://atv.hu/cikk/video-202007_szepvolgyi_janos

Mark
Guest

Éva: ” since I had written the piece I listened to a scientist from MTA who was the member of the team that came up with using the red sludge profitably. It would solve the problem of the waste and someone apparently could make a bundle in three and a half years.”
In principle if waste materials can be recycled that is clearly the best thing. But it is clear that this is something of a global problem, and no-one has really found a solution that is either economic or environmentally acceptable. Indeed there is an entire website out there devoted to possible solutions to the “red mud” problem:
http://www.redmud.org/home.html

Pete H.
Guest

I think that at least some of the waste was not adequately treated before being placed in the holding pond. During the manufacture of alumina, very alkaline (pH12) chemicals are used. This alkaline solution is, in the best practice, washed with water until it is sufficiently diluted and washed from the mud.
A substance with a pH 12 will burn like the strongest acids with pH’s in the 3-4 range. No one would argue that a large holding pond containing a strong acid is safe. And if red mud in storage facilities was normally ph 12, nobody would say it is safe either. But, it wasn’t supposed to be that basic. Something is terribly wrong here.
I am not aware of Hungarian environmental laws nor how they are enforced. There are reports of periodic inspections. Don’t they test the red mud? Or do they rely on self-reporting by the company.
In addition, to looking at why the earthen dams broke, I hope the investigation looks at why that stored material was so caustic.

An
Guest

@Mark: “If you look at most of the industry information on “red mud” it states that this is a “non-hazardous waste product” from alumina refining. Clearly we know if only from the burns people have suffered that to call it “non-hazardous” is somewhat to stretch the definition of the term way beyond any of its common uses in the English languages.”
Well, MTA (the Hungarian Science Academy) says the same: it is a non-hazardous waste product. What is causing the burns on people and kills wildlife is the alkaline (Natrium Hydroxide) they used to store the waste in.
However, as I understand, Natrium Hydroxide can be neutralized by adding acids. According to MTA, after neutralization, the heavy metals and other dangerous elements in the the red mud are not over the limit that would cause health problems (so they say at least). Except for one: when the mud dries out and people inhale it, it may cause respiratory irritations.
http://mta.hu/cikkek/a-vorosiszap-szennyezes-hatasai-125707

GW
Guest

“…a strong Hungary that needs no outside help and if outside help comes it is because it is due…”
Juche on the Danube? I knew that Orban was playing off nostalgia for many policies of the Soviet-controlled era, but adding a nationalist veneer, but who’d have guessed that his model was Kim Il Sung?

Karl Pfeifer
Guest

I saw V.O. last night on Austrian TV saying in English that Hungary needs outside help.
It is strange, that he waited 4 days to visit the place where the catastrophe happened.

Paul
Guest

That is strange. You’d think a politician as adept as reading (and influencing) the public mood would have been there on day one, in his wellies, spade in hand.
As for “…a strong Hungary that needs no outside help and if outside help comes it is because it is due…”
Am I the only one who doesn’t understand this? Surely, if help is ‘due’, it’s also needed?
Or am I just not fluent in Orbánspeak?

Kipo
Guest

The responsabilities is an important aspect.
Another aspect is the future: I heard the production at MAL will go on as soon as possible.
The question is:
can MAL be stopped? And in which security conditions?
This is an environmental and economical problem…. MAL employees are hundreds of people…
We are condemned to support such disasters everywhere in the world. The most in countries were the authorities are not liable. What about BP and the Mexico Gulf?
Should we return to agriculture?

Hank
Guest
The fact is that, even if the company is at fault because it flaunted safety regulations, build the dam badly or put more sludge into the reservoir than was allowed (and all this has not been proven at all, these are just suppositions), but even then the authorities are also at fault because they are supposed to inspect and supervise. So I would guess that this should be a part of the (criminal) investigation as much as anything: were safety regulations too lax (if so, than it is probably an EU thing as these regulations typically are coming from Brussels)? Were inspectors maybe bribed to turn a blind eye (as we know not an uncommon thing to happen)? Was/is there a warning system in place at all? I’ve seen several of these huge dams over the last decades in this part of Europe (cyanide, red mud, copper)and what surprises me, is that most of the time there is just this one dam. Sure, they are huge (this one in Kolontár is 60 meters wide at the base, 30-50 meters high) but why not have a second dam around the entire area to catch and/or slow down any spill? Isn’t a… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Karl Pfeifer: “I saw V.O. last night on Austrian TV saying in English..”
I saw him to on National Public Television. His English was pitiful. His last sentence made no sense: “Hungarian people don’t trust!” Don’t trust what/whom? Why not? It was just thrown in after a few words about how bad the whole thing is.
Surely he wanted to say something to the effect that people no longer believe anything experts or the company say. But that was beyond his linguistic capabilities. Rather sad from someone who went to a high school with emphasis on English. It seems that he can deliver a speech in English, but only if someone writes the text and he reads it. But to carry on an impromptu conversation is too much for him.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Hank: “Was/is there a warning system in place at all?”
As far as I know there wasn’t.

latefor
Guest

Wouldn’t it be nice if all political parties unite during this environmental disaster?
Attack the problem first, than worry about the legal implications of this terrible, sad, unfortunate tragedy!

latefor
Guest

To Paul Haynes-
I hope, I did not offend you…if I did, I do apologize.
Please keep writing, as I do enjoy reading your comments.

Gábor
Guest

Karl Pfeifer: “it is strange, that he waited 4 days to visit the place where the catastrophe happened”
To be honest Orbán sepnt the beginning of the week in Brussels where he had arranged meetings regarding Hungary’s presidency of the EU. Not necessarily unmovable ones (he met with leaders of some secondary parliamentary groups of the EU parliament and with some senior organizations, at least according to the news), but anyway it was all arranged preliminarily. The regular meeting of the government is on Wednesday and probably we can be greatful for him not to organize this event at Kolontár or Devecser. 😉

Odins lost eye
Guest
Going back to Google earth there is some evidence that the sludge pit was partly surrounded by a ‘bund’ That is a wall designed to hold back leakages. However the Bund wall only protects the place where the ground is steepest. Where it finished the on the north western edge is where, I think, the inner dyke burst. There seems the bund wall has either never been finished or where a second pond has been created within the bund wall. Most of the structure seems original but there seems to have been some sort of activity in the area where the breech occurred. We should remember that the Google earth image was dated 5th October 2008 (about 2 years ago) so what has happened since I just do not know. Yesterday I watched on BBC world news the remarks in English by OV (the Mighty One). What interested me was his appeal to ‘Rich Hungarian living abroad for money’. What is significant is that is that he only asked Hungarians for money! Draw your own conclusions. I have a feeling that this disaster will be used for ‘political purposes’ even though the incipient disaster started many years ago. There is… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Odins lost eye: “I would suggest that if you make a donation be very careful to whom you make it. It would not surprise me if quite a few ‘fake appeal’ sites will soon appear.”
They already appeared according to MTI news this afternoon. Be careful.

Passing Stranger
Guest

I just read George Soros donated 1.000.000 USD. I wonder whether Orban had him in mind when he appealed to rich Hungarian emigres.

GW
Guest

“I just read George Soros donated 1.000.000 USD. I wonder whether Orban had him in mind when he appealed to rich Hungarian emigres.”
No doubt we will soon hear complaints about Soros’s stinginess.

Hazelle Jackson
Guest
I have some interest in this because, admittedly many years ago, I worked for an organisation which was responsible for monitoring maritime standards including the shipment of liquids. The point is that some liquids/sludges, which are safe to transport when they are lying still, become volatile when at sea and tossed around in the waves. This can cause them to clump together to form large masses which can destablise ships. So when liquids are carried in cargo ships, they have to be held in separate compartments in the holds. One account I have read about the red mud, suggests that the winds and heavy rains which occurred recently, had just such a destablising effect on it. There are also other points to consider here. The first is that the mud should be washed/cleansed before it is pumped out into a reservoir like this, to remove the soda used to clean it. The soda can then be recycled. One wonders if the mud was properly cleansed here given the number of people burned. Secondly once the mud is pumped into the reservoir, it is left to dry out to a sediment. It certainly seems that the reservoir here was constantly being… Read more »
Paul
Guest

Interesting stuff, Hazelle, it’s posts like yours that make it worth putting up with the Fidesz trolls.
These reservoirs were buit in the old communist days, so I doubt if any safety features were built into them at all. None appear in the various photographs we’ve seen recently, anyway.
I suspect they were just pumping stuff into the reservoir and hoping that nature or God would do the rest.
As for heavy rains being common at this time of year, my experience of Hungarian weather is that heavy rains can occur at ANY time of the year! (As anyone who spent May and June in Hungary this ‘summer’ will confirm.)
This reservoir was also fairly high up in the hils, where you would expect the impact of heavy rains to be more serious. So, logically, even more than the usual safety precautions would be necessary.
There are said to be several other similar reservoirs like this in Hungary, presumably just as likely to fail in the way this one has done. I wonder just how many similar reservoirs (possibly containing even worse ‘sudges’) there are dotted around central and easter Europe?

Paul
Guest

“To Paul Haynes- I hope, I did not offend you…if I did, I do apologize. Please keep writing, as I do enjoy reading your comments.”
No offence taken at all, in fact I agreed with your comments to some extent (one of the many things that the rabid Orbánistas can’t seem to grasp is that thinking people can sometimes hold conflicting views on complex topics!).
And I appreciate the compliment – thanks.

Karl Pfeifer
Guest
Watching last evening Austrian TV we learned from declarations of Greenpeace chemists how dangerous the red mud containing arsenic and mercury is. On the other hand the official Hungarian Government spokeswoman said no danger, she explicitly mentioned tourism. But we could see on Austrian TV “Riding Farms” and Guesthouses not far from the red mud. And Austrian TV reporter said there was a lot of agriculture there and those people lost everything. We saw a Hungarian woman weep for her once beautiful garden covered with red mud. But I guess Fidesz and V.O. led Government is right. After all a majority of Hungarians elected them, and that is the most important fact, Hungarians must know. All other facts seem to be irrelevant. Most of them want to be led again by a wise leader, who thinks for them. Now that catastrophe has happened the leader waited 4 days to visit the location, because he knew very well, that his followers believe in him and in his wisdom and nobody will ask the question about the naked emperor. (Andersen) The most important reason of electing the wise leader was not to be responsible for anything. During Kádár’s rule everything belonged to… Read more »
Hank
Guest
Personally, I wouldn’t blindly trust the government and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (their assurances that the heavy metals didn’t pose a serious threat came too fast and too easy), nor Greenpeace (I’ve several times experienced their tendency to exaggerate – sometimes hugely – in an effort to get media attention). Maybe the team of red mud experts from the EU that arrives today can give some clarity on this. Népszabadság has an interesting story with experts from the Technical University of Budapest explaining that the dam in question was build (in the 80’s) on two different types of soil and that the tail-end of some marshland was right under the north wall which collapsed. So what could have happened is that the different types of soil reacted differently to the pressures of the reservoir being filled and the weather conditions (rains, high levels of groundwater). If this is true, it is incredible: everybody who knows anything about building knows you shouldn’t do something like this. Try and connect a concrete wall and a brick wall; they will always tear because materials react differently. Did the company know? Did inspection authorities know? They should have. My wife spoke to a… Read more »
Jaszi
Guest

…if countries or non-Hungarian individuals offer help. Will he turn them down?
well now, if they beg to be allowed to do it (on their knees and apologizing for the Trianon and other historical injustices) Orban will consider their request and (maybe) grant it.
..certain parts of the village cannot be restored: “This area must be left untouched as a monument to this tragedy.”
Has anyone asked the locals what they want, do they want a mounment or their village back ? Or is Orban redefining impotence as voluntary abstinence ? What a clown.

Pásztor Szilárd
Guest

You are all incredibly disgusting and shameful. You whine about OV and Fidesz using this catastrophe to gain political benefits, yet ALL you do is bash OV and Fidesz under cover of this catastrophe.
Also, calling someone immediately a Fidesz troll who simply knows about Hungary many times more than you do and thus disagrees makes you unworthy of all discussions.
This is probably my last post to this sickening blog – you’ll no doubt be happy about it. I fortunately overestimated the significance of this irrelevant place, there is no need from my part to worry about this little echo chamber because it exerts no influence on how foreigners judge Hungary. Luckily, it would need a much larger zoo to really hurt the country.

Marta
Guest

As a corporate communications specialist who has dealt with environmental issues, I have a few questions:
Does this company have a spokesperson who interfaces with the media and the community and prepares the company’s leadership for questions about the company’s risk contingency plan? Is there a risk contingency plan/community response plan? If so, has that plan been communicated to the residents of the towns and villages in the vicinity? Is the company leadership able to communicate clearly to scientific and non-scientific audiences about the processes of production at this facility? About environmental impact? Obviously not. Adding to the environmental disaster is the public relations disaster that has resulted in speculations about what really happened and opportunities for political finger pointing.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Marta puts up a series of questions concerning the company’s and the population’s preparedness for such a disaster. She herself answers them: “Obviously not.” Indeed, she is right. Both the company and the population nearby have been totally unprepared. It is a shame. I will talk about some of these questions in my blog today that should be available soon.

Longstreet
Guest

“Rather sad from someone who went to a high school with emphasis on English.”
If I have to choose between your English and his Prime Ministership, I’d choose the second. You don’t mind, do you?

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