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.