Viktor Orbán and the environmental disaster

Some people on this blog noted that although the disaster occurred in the early afternoon on Monday, it took Viktor Orbán three days to visit the site. The commenter noted that a really savvy politician would have been on the spot immediately. I assume we all remember the disaster in New Orleans and the tardiness of President George W. Bush. Politically this seeming lack of interest cost him dearly.

It is true that Orbán happened to be in Brussels, but in cases like that a president or prime minister interrupts whatever he is doing and immediately returns home. Of course, such a move has only political advantages because in fact he himself cannot do much. Except perhaps calm nerves.

Well, in any case, Viktor Orbán showed up in the village most affected only on Thursday. I gave a brief description of his messsage earlier. The most striking aspect of the speech was his insistence that no "foreign" help was necessary. Hungary is strong, Hungarians are quite capable of handling the situation by themselves, and rich Hungarians abroad can give money to the capable but obviously poor Hungarians at home. He will not ask for help from the European Union because it is its duty to assist a member nation.

And indeed, Hungary didn't turn to Brussels for expert help. The villages were under the red sludge by about 2 p.m. on Monday, but on Tuesday MTI learned from the spokesman of Kristalina Georgieva, Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, that Hungary up to that point had asked for no help. A day later, on Wednesday, Joe Hennon, spokesman for the Commissioner for the Environment, reported that the Hungarian authorities had expressed their confidence that they could handle the disaster on their own. But the officials of the European Union were not that convinced. They were worried about Hungary itself as well as the possibility that the pollution would cross Hungary's borders via the Danube. They kept phoning the Hungarian government authorities inquiring whether after all they might change their minds.

Thursday morning Viktor Orbán, by that time in Kolontár, repeated his resolve not to ask for foreign help. Rich Hungarians will contribute. As it turned out, he got in touch with George Pataki, former Republican governor of New York, whose father's family emigrated to the United States about a hundred years ago and who speaks not a word of Hungarian, and asked him to organize the relief effort, presumably among Hungarian-Americans. One rich Hungarian-American, George Soros, immediately offered $1 million.

By Thursday, European Union officials were so worried that Kristalina Georgieva herself phoned Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, around 8 p.m. in order "to inquire about the situation." She informed Pintér that the European Union was ready to step in whenever the Hungarian authorities deemed it necessary. Two hours later the Hungarian government asked for "urgent help from the European Union." They suddenly discovered that they need three to five experts who are familiar with the handling of toxic waste.

On Thursday evening I watched National Public Television's Newshour during which Margaret Warner had an interview with Joe Hennon who at this point could report that "a couple of hours ago, the Hungarian government has asked for assistance. So, we will be looking at providing that." The whole interview is available on the internet. From the interview it is clear that Brussels knew very little about the details and what they knew was from the media.

Critics of Viktor Orbán have a few harsh words to say about the government's response to the disaster. First of all, about the nationalistic overtones of Orbán's first utterances. As an American friend of mine rightly pointed out when she heard what Orbán had to say: "At least the Hungarian prime minister is consistent. He keeps emphasizing strength and self-reliance. He doesn't want the help of the IMF and he doesn't want the assistance of the European Union." Yes, he is consistent, but is he doing the right thing? In a disaster like that one needs all the expertise and financial assistance the world can offer.

Another problem with Orbán's attitude was bringing up the "ethnic issue," as Zsófia Mihancsik pointed out in Galamus. It doesn't sound too good that only Hungarians the world over should assist Hungarians at home. National solidarity that turns inward in a country that belongs to the European Union sounds strange in today's world. Others criticize him for making pronouncements lacking any scientific underpinning. For example, he looked around in Kolontár and announced that this village should be leveled and remain a monument to the disaster. However, we have no idea how and when the soil and vegetation can regenerate.

On the other hand, there are observers who find Orbán's handling of the case "exemplary." For example, Gábor Török, the political scientist, who has a blog. Török claims that he is not one of the supporters of Viktor Orbán. He often finds his statements unfortunate and outright wrong, but the prime minister's response in this crisis was perfect. He looked "resolute, compassionate, and reassuring." He was the "winner" in this tragedy. His few words bought him more political capital than all his fancy speeches in the last few months. You see, two people can watch the same interview and draw entirely different conclusions.

Bauxite was discovered in Hungary in the 1920s and ever since there has been aluminum production in the country. With nationalization in the late 1940s the large operation at Ajka became a state-owned company. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Hungarian state tried to attract foreign investors, who came and went after looking around. They came to the conclusion that the bauxite that was left was not of very good quality and the storing of the sludge was not safe. At this point a number of Hungarians came forth who were ready to take over the operation. I assume that they paid mighty little for it after it became clear that no foreign investor was interested.

But their real cost may be high. Viktor Orbán addressed a threatening sentence to the owners:  "This affair will not end up the way that was customary in past years…. A new era started a few months ago in Hungary." We don't know how responsible the present owners are. One has the distinct feeling that they are not the only ones who should bear the burden. According to them they operated the factory and handled the sludge strictly according to the laws governing such a facility. If that is the case, the government is also guilty for allowing the current practice of storing the sludge. Moreover, if it is true that two weeks ago there were signs of leakage, surely the Central Transdanubian Inspectorate for the Environment, Conservancy, and Waterways under Zoltán Illés, undersecretary for the environment, is also responsible. After all, it was only a few days ago that they inspected the facility and found everything in order. It also turned out that the company had an insurance policy with ridiculously low coverage. In the media there were outraged comments about the irresponsibility of the owners. But, as it turned out, Hungarian law didn't demand a level of insurance commensurate with the dangers of storing such toxic material. And we haven't even mentioned those who were responsible for building the storage area in the mid-80s. The current owners are madly looking for the plans and cannot find them.

In the meantime, a new crack has appeared in the walls of the storage area. This time on the north side. The crack is not small: 7 centimeters wide. A wall 4-5 meters high is being erected that is about 20 meters wide at the bottom and 5-6 meters wide on the top. This wall/levee is supposed to save the village of Kolontár in case a new spillage occurs. Building the wall will take at least two days. The inhabitants of Kolontár have been ordered to leave the village, and in the nearby Devecser people were told to be ready for possible evacuation. They can pack no more than 20 kg of their most important belongings.

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Karl Pfeifer
Guest

According to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung there is similar danger in Almásfüzö (I have no Hungarian letters, so the ü and the ö should probably be written differently). Now this place is near the Danube. And if there the red mud is running into the river. It will be a real disaster.

Paul
Guest

I’ve just spent 15 minutes composing a reply to Eva’s ‘Szilárd’ post, only to find it’s vanished!
Anyone have a photo of Szilárd? I just want to check he’s still there.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul: “‘ve just spent 15 minutes composing a reply to Eva’s ‘Szilárd’ post, only to find it’s vanished!”
Sorry, Paul. This what happens when the author of Hungarian Spectrum doesn’t know Typepad too well! (smiley) I didn’t really want to write a blog to Szilard. I just wanted to respond to his comment and I entered the answer on the wrong place. Sorry.
I was very angry at his usual accusations about lying, about extremism, about God knows what else. I really think that Szilard and Longstreet’s thinking is quite typical of the kinds of Hungarian opinions that are really not acceptable in a democratic society that cherishes diversity and civilized debate of issues.

Paul
Guest
The fates are obviously looking kindly on OV. Now it appears that the feared pollution of the Duna is not going to happen, the disaster reverts to a purely internal affair. Orbán no longer has to worry about international implications, and the story will now rapidly fade from the media’s notoriously short-term memory. Instead of the damaging negative publicity he would have had to face, OV can now get down to the business of turning this mess entirely to his advantage. And, that won’t exactly be difficult. Firstly, it’s a golden opportunity for him to be seen as “resolute, compassionate, and reassuring” and to get that firm jawed left profile of his all over the Magyar media yet again – a wonderful gift of fate so early in his premiership. Secondly, what a God given opportunity to blame it all on the old regime, the Commies, and, of course, the MSZP (even if none of them actually had any involvement. If will ‘prove’ once and for all everything Fidesz has been saying for the last eight years. Any doubters still left will be clearly liars, Marxists and anti-Hungarians. Let’s just hope, that during all this, he remembers to get compensation… Read more »
Paul
Guest

No problem, Eva, I guessed that’s what had happened. And, as to your internet/computer skills, I hope mine are as good when I’m in my 70s.
I wouldn’t let the Szilárds of this world get to you, there are posters like him on every blog or message board I’ve ever looked at (strangely, all sounding remarkably similar).
And, for what it’s worth, I think he is genuine, and really is trying to put the Fidesz side and attempt to convert us deviants and heretics from personal motivation. For that, he deserves our respect – even if his style sadly doesn’t help his cause in the least.

Mark
Guest

Karl Pfeifer: “According to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung there is similar danger in Almásfüzö.”
There was indeed an alminium smelter at Almásfüzitő. In fact anyone who has travelled by train between Budapest and Győr will have seen the socialist realist factory gate from the train:
comment image
It closed in 1997, and – the slogan on the gate is especially poignant for its workers went unpaid for the last few months of their employment.
The resovoir for storing the red mud is on the low lying land right next to the Danube – just look on the map below to the right of the town centre for a big red-brown area right on the Danube bank:
http://maps.google.hu/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=hu&geocode=&q=Alm%C3%A1sf%C3%BCzit%C5%91&sll=47.301585,19.500732&sspn=2.778799,10.777588&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Alm%C3%A1sf%C3%BCzit%C5%91&ll=47.727893,18.282967&spn=0.04307,0.1684&t=h&z=13

Pete H.
Guest

I just looked at the holding pond at Almásfüzitő on Google Earth. “Near the river”, is a bit of understatement. The pond’s dimensions are approximately 700 x 800 meters and it is located right along the Danube’s edge. There is about 50 meters between the north wall of the pond and the river.
This site is abandoned since the late 90’s. Perhaps a spot for international inspectors to check out.
What strikes me a little odd is all the reports that the EU classifies the waste as “safe”, yet they are greatly concerned that it may find its way into the Danube. Maybe a case where the EU needs to get its regulations and concerns aligned?

Paul
Guest
Jesus, that’s a frightening image. And, not only is it right next to the Duna, but there’s a ditch/channel running along the south and east sides of the reservoir, which immediately discharges into the river. So the dam wouldn’t have to rupture just on the Duna side to cause almost immediate pollution of the river. The reservoir (or the dam) must be a lot higher than it looks, though. We drove alongide the Duna near there just after the last really bad floods (2003?), and, judging by the mud and debris left in the branches of the trees, the river flooded to a good 2 metres above road level. I also wonder just how full/deep the reservoir is. If you zoom right in on the image, you’ll see a large grey area on the right, which appears to be solid ‘ground’, but is still within the reservoir, and there doesn’t appear to be a barrier between this area and the red sludge. And, if you move around the image either side of the reservoir, you’ll find several other ponds/reservoirs apparently containing strangely coloured liquids. One of these is the same colour as the ‘water’ in a fenced off ex-quarry next… Read more »
Paul
Guest
Re Eva’s last paragraph, this has just appeared (12:20 BST Sunday 10/10) on the Guardian’s website: “A wall in the Hungarian reservoir that burst last week triggering a flood of toxic sludge is close to collapse, the country’s prime minister warned yesterday. Viktor Orban described the situation as dramatic and warned that a repeat of last week’s flood, in which seven people are known to have died, was highly likely. He said the town of Kolontar, which sits next to the reservoir and was badly damaged by last Monday’s flood, had been evacuated as a precaution. “Cracks have appeared on the northern wall of the reservoir which makes it very likely that the whole wall will collapse,” Orban said. “We have started to build dams in the direction of the populated areas to slow the flow of the material in case of a new incident.” Experts have estimated that, depending on the density of the sludge, an estimated 500,000 cubic metres more of red sludge could escape from the reservoir if the wall collapses – about half the amount of the initial flood. “Human errors and mistakes must exist … and the [legal] consequences will be very serious,” said Orban.… Read more »
Odins lost eye
Guest
Everyone is now well into the ‘blame game’ but perhaps it is time to give praise to those from the local Disaster Control service. These guys were in form the very start beginning trying to save people and animals and beginning to clear up the mess. These and the locals are the real heroes of this disaster. It is the junior ranks and their local officers who should get the praise and the honours –not the fat cats and politicos-. Hungary has a very good ‘disaster control and rescue’ service. From what I have seen they had plans prepared for just such a disaster. On the day after the dyke failing they were dumping acid (to neutralist the alkali) and lime (to try to bind in the heavy metals) in to the local ditches this sludge. The fact that they could do this shows that they had stocks of the necessary materials to hand. Near where I used to live there was a flash flood and the entire contents of the meat processing factory were spread throughout a largish housing estate. Six months later a government subcommittee were still arguing whether the cleanup crew should be issued with type ‘A’… Read more »
Paul
Guest

Thanks, Odin, that made me laugh.
But you really should read through before you post!

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