Confused communication about the Hungarian disaster

One ought to be very careful what one says and how. Especially in a situation such as Hungary is experiencing at the moment because of the spillage of a toxic substance. Perhaps you recall that when Viktor Orbán first saw the devastation he blurted out that Kolontár would never recover. People will never be able to return and the devastated land should be left untouched as a memorial. Soon enough as far as Sydney, Australia, the Morning Herald carried this headline: "Victims of toxic Hungarian flood can never go home." The writer of the headline didn't mention that these words were uttered by the Hungarian prime minister. It was an understandable emotional outburst, but the paper presented it as fact. And, by the way, the mayor of Kolontár only today said that the village is already rebuilding its future.

Different government officials say sometimes contradictory things about the current situation. On the one hand, there are those, like Csaba Hende, minister of defense, who in order to show that the Hungarian army is in tip-top shape, came out with these most likely exaggerated pronouncements: "We have finished plans for all possible scenarios." This is especially interesting since not long ago the same Hende announced that the Hungarian army is totally unprepared. It couldn't respond to any domestic disaster. 

While experts claimed on Saturday that there is "a good chance of avoiding further damage to the walls," Viktor Orbán on the very same day told a press conference that "there is a great probability that the dam will collapse." 

Today Zoltán Illés, the undersecretary for the environment and a man who is prone to exaggeration, repeated that "the danger of the collapse of the northern wall has grown." On the same day one could read that "the crack on the northern side has not grown." Whom should we believe? After a while one gives up.

Perhaps Zoltán Illés is the worst offender in this respect, and I was sorry to hear that he was designated to inform the 150 newspapermen who signed up for a "tour" of Kolontár and the "vat" that still holds tons of the sludge. He can say such things as "in a day or within a week tragedy might come" and the container will burst again. Or that "the danger of the collapse of the wall has grown, but there is a good possibility that it will happen only after the new dam [which is being built] will be ready." But he said other rather categorical things. For example, the container cannot be saved and the northern wall will surely collapse. No wonder that Attila Mesterházy, chairman of MSZP, asked for his resignation. A resignation is certainly not imminent, but I will be surprised if Mr. Illés stays in his job for four years.

Viktor Orbán is making the most of this tragedy politically. From what he said to the journalists at his press conference, he wants to give the impression that financial assistance coming from the population or arriving from abroad is actually unnecessary because "the government itself is capable of handling the situation, including damage control, land recovery, and the assistance of individuals." Asking for assistance is only to strengthen the solidarity of the Hungarian people all over the world. "Solidarity is also a question of self-esteem." Thus one reason he was unwilling to accept outside help was that relying only on themselves would bolster Hungarians' national pride. Again, this way of thinking is very much in line with the current government's nationalistic tendencies. Although he will accept the money that is due to Hungary from the European Union, "Hungarians are on their own."

As for who is responsible? Government politicians hint that the sole responsibility lies with MAL Zrt. Illés, for example, announced that the new dam will cost 100 million forints but it will be the company that will have to pay for it. Orbán simply announced that MAL is cooperative but "there is no deal." Lives were lost, damage is everywhere, and someone must pay for it all. But as more and more information becomes public the question of responsibility might not be as simple as Zoltán Illés and Viktor Orbán imagine.

The current owners purchased the old state-owned factory in 1995. Before they signed the contract a technical inspection was done and they were told that all was in perfect order. The materials used were appropriate and after taking samples the experts testified that "everything is able to meet the most stringent requirements."

Meanwhile Gusztáv Winkler, an associate professor of physics, came forth and recalled that still in the 1980s he conducted a geological survey of the area and came to the conclusion that part of the container was built on both marshy and clay soil that might cause problems later. It is not clear what Winkler did with his study, but the owners who purchased the factory knew nothing about it. Although Winkler claims that in his lectures he often brings up the storage area at Ajka as a perfect example of a construction where tragedy is bound to occur, he doesn't seem to have the "plans" from which he worked. The owners of MAL claim that they were totally unaware of the existence of such a study and if they had known about it they certainly would have built another storage facility.

I'm a bit skeptical of Gusztáv Winkler's alleged study and find his behavior rather peculiar. If he was aware that the storage facility at Ajka was a time bomb, why didn't he get in touch with the new owners either in 1995 or subsequently? I would say that if he as an expert ascertained that the storage facility was geologically unstable, he was outright irresponsible for doing nothing except giving lectures about the dangers that lie ahead to his students.

Meanwhile the government must decide whether to permit MAL to operate. About 3,000 jobs are at stake that Hungary can ill afford to lose given the approximately 11% unemployment. Moreover, it seems that because of the technological peculiarities of aluminum oxide if production stops for any extended period of time it means the end of its manufacture.

The Boston Globe came out with some incredible photos that personalize the tragedy. But equally interesting are the comments. Some in English, others in Hungarian. Among the comments one can find really primitive explanations: the "commies" are responsible. But not the "commies" of the 1980s when the storage area was built but the "commies" of the last eight years. Fortunately here is Viktor Orbán and he will put these guys in jail. Oh, how simple life is according to some.

 

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SVN49
Guest

A small correction: Dr. Winkler Gusztav is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Photogrammetry and Geospatial Information Systems (i.e., Geodetic Sciences or Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering) of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics and a Civil Engineer by training.

Rigó Jancsi
Guest

Talking about the Hungarian army: On index you can find a report about the heroic act of preventing two Austrian aircrafts, a helicopter and a plane, from entering the Hungarian airspace, most probably trying to take pictures of the area around Ajka. While it is understandable that this really is a violation of airspace without a permit, the army statement sounds like they just defeated a whole army of villains… 🙂

Passing Stranger
Guest

@Rigo. I read that too. To call something like that a ‘violation of Hungarian airspace’ is oddly Cold War language, was my thought.

Odins lost eye
Guest
The good assistant professor Winkler may well have produced such a report, but would it have even have been read? From my knowledge of the way in which decisions are taken as where to site anything from a sewage pumping station or a Sludge Pit, the experts’ reports are often sidelined. This is especially true if the experts’ reports only give cautions or warnings as to possible problems in the future and are written by an ’assistant professor’. It might be given more attention if it had been signed by a full professor. Part of the communications problem is that those communicating have different agendas. OV (the Mighty One) wants to lock someone up. He needs ‘high grade scalps’ to put on his ‘coup stick’. His problem is that those who are really responsible may well be dead. Others are trying to gain Kudos for themselves. The company is looking to see who it can blame so it can get off the ‘hook’. By now all the groups involved should be talking to their lawyers to see who they can sue. (It is an ill wind that blows no one good – the lawyers will get very fat on this… Read more »
Hank
Guest
The problem is that professor Winkler – spoke to him just now – did do his research in the 80s into the soil structure on that spot in connection with some environmental matter, not in connection with the building of the reservoir which wasn’t there yet. There should have been a same kind of research when the construction started, he says, but whether that was ever done and where the report in question is, he doesn’t know. Also, he says that this may have seriously weakened the dam structure, but doesn’t in itself explain a collapse. Other factors (ground water levels, over filling etc.) must have come into play as well. On another note: I understand that Magyar Nemzet reported this morning that authorities are considering to renationalize MAL. It would be a typical, almost bolshevic, reaction to the problem. On the other hand, I don’t know how the company (1100 direct workplaces, thousands of indirect ones)can survive this. And though it might be difficult to prove negligence by the company owners (they can’t claim they didn’t know about the construction plans, legally they should have known, from the moment they bought the place), it would be a shame if… Read more »
Paul
Guest
I saw/heard OV speak for the first time yesterday on a Guardian video of his speech/interview at Kolontár (if this sounds odd, it’s just that we don’t have TV either here or in Hungary). I can’t say I was impressed. I was under the impression that his English was much better than it is, but he actually has quite a strong accent and a very odd way of speaking and/or structuring sentences. Aside from that, he said a lot of very odd things, in what was quite a brief speech. It didn’t sound anything like the sort of speech/interview prime ministers normally give in this sort of situation. For instance, he didn’t seem particularly bothered about the suffering of the people or clearing up the mess, or praising the efforts of the emergency services, etc. He seemed mostly concerned with making political points about blame, responsibility and the duty of Hungarians abroad. Non Hungarians listening to him must have been even more puzzled than I was. On a lighter note, once again he was only shown in left profile! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of OV from the right – does he have some awful scar or… Read more »
Paul
Guest
Are there any engineers or the like on here who understand dams and such things? I have a number of questions about the dam that burst. Firstly, I notice that the burst was at a corner. I would imagine that corners are the weakest point of such structures – is this correct? Dams are normally built in a curve, which is presumably the best shape to avoid weak spots/pressure points – so why aren’t these sludge reservoirs built with circular dams, or at least much more curved ‘corners’? Secondly, the photos showing JCBs, etc at the bottom of the dam, reveal just what a huge structure this is. It’s hard to believe something this big and massive can just collapse like that. It surely must have been a progressive failure, possibly over some time, so there must have been some signs of impending failure before it actually burst? And lastly, it appears that most of what actually escaped was water. Water, heavily contaminated with sludge, admittedly, but not the actually sludge itself, most of which appears to still be in the reservoir. So I surmise that the problem was not so much one of failure to contain sludge, but failure… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

SVN49: “Dr. Winkler Gusztav is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Photogrammetry and Geospatial Information Systems”
First, I wrote “geology,” but then I read an MTI report in which they called him a physicist. I was somewhat surprised that a physicist is doing this kind of research, but I changed it to “physics.” As it turned out I should have stuck to “geology.” Thank you.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Passing Stranger: “To call something like that a ‘violation of Hungarian airspace’ is oddly Cold War language, was my thought.”
Hende wants to sound terribly but terribly important. Shortly after he became minister he talked about the army’s main task being is to defend Hungary’s borders. That sounds odd when practically all the neighbors are either members of the Union now or will be soon (Croatia and Serbia). That leaves out Ukraine but I doubt that they have any notion of attacking Hungary.
On the other hand, I have the feeling that Hende and others like him actually don’t rule out an attack by one of the neighbors even if they are members of the European Union.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Hank: “The problem is that professor Winkler – spoke to him just now – did do his research in the 80s into the soil structure on that spot in connection with some environmental matter, not in connection with the building of the reservoir which wasn’t there yet.”
Well, that gives a totally different hue to the whole story. In this case (1) MTI didn’t report the story accurately and (2) the report most likely never got to the Tröszt that built the structure. Thus no wonder that MAL’s owners didn’t know anything about it.
As for “nationalization.” I wouldn’t be surprised. Orbán is itching to nationalize everything he could lay his hands on. With large scale nationalization there are several problems. (1) The owners may not want to sell and (2) the Hungarian government doesn’t have enough money.
As for this particular factory it is likely that given the current situation of the firm the state could get hold of it very cheaply.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul: “I can’t say I was impressed. I was under the impression that his English was much better than it is, but he actually has quite a strong accent and a very odd way of speaking and/or structuring sentences.”
First time I heard him speak English was a long time ago during the Clinton administration. He obviously prepared in his head a few sentences about the tutor he had at Oxford who was also Clinton’s tutor. Something about that he brought greetings from their tutor to Clinton. That went off quite well, but when at the press conference someone asked him a question about the Balkans he apologized and switched into Hungarian.

Odins lost eye
Guest
Paul, You are right dams normally curve inwards to resist the weight of water behind them. But dams normally rest their shoulders on solid bedrock forming the sides of the valley they are damming. I once had to fix a suite of programs that were not working. They were to calculate the various parameters for reservoirs. Do not ask me anything about the mathematics or the like. This was not my concern I just had tto get them to run without ‘falling over’, doing zero divides and other quaint things. This structure is a ‘pond’ type reservoir. It would have been made by scraping the earth out of the middle and dumping around the walls. These walls seem to have been made with a mixture of slag and earth reinforced with large blocks of what looks like concrete. The strength will depend on the cross sectional profile of the pond. If this was a gentle curve, deep in the middle and shallow at the edges it would have been much stronger than one where the edges were deep and steep. Whether the corners were square or curved would make little difference as one which ‘bulges outwards’ is as weak as… Read more »
Odins lost eye
Guest

12:47 Z I see that OV has had one Zoltan Bakonyi arrested. Hum Ho.

GW
Guest

Eva wrote:
“Hende wants to sound terribly but terribly important. Shortly after he became minister he talked about the army’s main task being is to defend Hungary’s borders. That sounds odd when practically all the neighbors are either members of the Union now or will be soon (Croatia and Serbia). That leaves out Ukraine but I doubt that they have any notion of attacking Hungary.”
The more relevant organization here is NATO. Hungary has three Nato-member neighbors (Slovakia, Croatia, and Romania) and three non-NATO members (Austria, Serbia, Ukraine). While it strikes me that the Hungarian Defense Minister is grandstanding a bit, I simply don’t know under which agreements or understandings, if any, Austrian military aircraft might overfly Hungary.

Paul
Guest

A while ago (maybe last year?) I seem to remember a tremendous fuss amongst the loony fringe when two Israeli jets landed, or didn’t land, at Budapest and then flew on to somewhere else.
The nutters used up great tracts of the internet expounding their increasingly mad theories about this incident (whatever the actual incident was – no one seemed too bothered with any facts).
I assume they’ll make the same fuss about this ‘incident’.

Karl Pfeifer
Guest

Today G.H. (Georg Hefty) comment’s in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung concludes:
“Das in Ajka betroffene Unternehmen ist ja keine ausländische Firma, der man unterstellen könnte, ausschließlich Gewinnmaximierung betrieben zu haben. Orbáns patriotische Wirtschaftspolitik hat einen Dämpfer erhalten: Auch die eigenen Unternehmer sind nicht immer nur perfekt.”
He is making fun of the anticapitalist rhetoric of Orbán.

Paul
Guest

Karl, that would be a lot funnier if I could read German.

Paul
Guest
MTI’s version of the ‘airspace violation’ story (from politics.hu): Plane, helicopter violates airspace over disaster area By MTI An Austrian-registered small private plane violated the closed airspace over the red sludge-hit region in western Hungary in an attempt to record images on Sunday afternoon, a high-ranking army official told MTI. Hungarian air control authorities have ordered an airspace closure for planes up to 1,500 metres over the area until 10 pm on Sunday. Denying earlier reports, the Defence Ministry’s spokesman told MTI that Hungary’s air force had not been alerted to any incident of airspace violation over the region and had therefore taken no measures. Attila Kovacs did not rule out the possibility that journalists could have seen a small white plane over the area, but asserted that it had not been escorted out of the airspace by a fighter plane and a helicopter of the Hungarian army. MTI’s correspondent caught sight of a white aircraft while visiting the damaged reservoir and the worst-hit village of Kolontar together with other journalists on Sunday afternoon. According to the correspondent, the photographer and a cameraman working for an Austrian press outlet were seeking to take pictures of the site. Kovacs however confirmed… Read more »