MAC: Mines and Communities

Red Mud Disaster: Hungary aims to take-over culprit company

Published by MAC on 2010-10-18
Source: PlanetArk, Bloomberg (2010-10-14)

The full extent of damages, caused by Hungary's "red mud" disaster last week, is still being determined. The death toll has reached eight, and the danger of further toxic releases cannot be discounted.

Hungary's government says it will take the offending company, Magyar Aluminum (MAL), back under state control.

As pointed out in recent MAC coverage, MAL was privatised in 1995; re-nationalising it is clearly one way of trying to avert future disaster.

The government's response to the toxic flood has been prompt and seems to have been according to the book. This is not surprising, since Hungary is one of the more environmentally conscious of eastern European states.

However, there must be a lingering suspicion that, by attributing blame solely to the company, the government is trying to shift responsibility away from failures of its own regulatory authorities.

Why - when warned for some time by environmentalists - were they unable to detect that this was "an accident waiting to happen"?

Images of images, and links to satellite photos of the disaster, are at http://www.flickr.com/photos/skytruth/sets/72157625034172329/detail/

 

ESPAÑOL

Hungary State To Take Control Of MAL After Spill

By Gergely Szakacs and Marton Dunai

PlanetArk

12 October 2010

Hungary's prime minister on Monday blamed "human negligence" for a spill of toxic red sludge that killed eight people last week, and said the government would take control of the company responsible.

Source of toxic sludge spill in HungaryDisaster crews were racing to finish an emergency dam to avert a second spill of the by-product of alumina production from the sludge reservoir owned by the MAL Zrt company.

A million cubic meters of red mud burst out of the reservoir last Monday, flooding three local villages and fouling rivers including a tributary of the Danube.

Government spokeswoman Anna Nagy said Zoltan Bakonyi, the head of MAL, had been detained for 72 hours.

Police spokeswoman Monika Benyi said police were questioning a man on suspicion of "endangering public safety, causing multiple deaths and causing damage to the environment."

Prime Minister Viktor Orban told parliament damages must be paid to those affected by the spill, jobs at the plant must be saved, those responsible must be held accountable and further risks at the company's sites should be identified.

"Hungary's largest ecological disaster was caused by human negligence, by allowing a hazardous material to escape," Orban said. "We need to bring the company responsible for the red sludge spill under state control, and its assets under state closure, until all of these four tasks are handled," he told parliament.

Orban said a state commissioner would be appointed to take over control over MAL and manage its assets.

"In light of what happened, we have good reason to believe that there were people who were aware of the dangerously weakened state of the walls of the reservoirs, but driven by their private interests they believed they were not worth repairing and hoped that the trouble could be avoided."

Disaster crews were racing to finish an emergency dam to protect the village of Kolontar in case the weakened wall of the damaged reservoir falls.

"We hope to have the dam finished by Tuesday," the prime minister's spokesman told TV2.

With the nearby town of Devecser, home to 5,400 people, still on alert and Kolontar evacuated, the exact cause of the disaster remained unclear.

In a statement on its website Sunday, MAL said the walls of the reservoir met the prescribed rigidity standards, based on the findings of a technical survey carried out in 1995.

Soil Structure

Gusztav Winkler, a professor at Budapest Technical University, who surveyed the site when the reservoir was being built 30 years ago, told Reuters the structure of the soil made the reservoir unstable.

Tibor Dobson, a spokesman for disaster crews, said evacuated residents of the village of Kolontar must remain in emergency accommodation. The death toll rose to eight after a person reported missing was found.

Kolontar was evacuated Saturday after cracks appeared in the northern wall of the reservoir.

Dobson told Reuters Monday the latest checks performed on the damaged northern wall of the sludge reservoir showed no further disturbance.

The latest water samples taken Monday showed that alkalinity levels in the Danube and the river Raba were back to normal, the interior ministry said on its website.

A team of EU environmental experts arrived in Hungary on Monday to help authorities.

(Editing by Ralph Boulton)


Hungary Plant To Restart, Sludge May Damage Farmland

By Marton Dunai

PlanetArk

14 October 2010

The alumina plant that flooded parts of Hungary with toxic sludge will restart production by Friday and will stay under state control for up to two years, the disaster commissioner said on Wednesday.

The spill of industrial waste last week at the plant, owned by firm MAL Zrt, killed nine people and injured more than 120, polluted a tributary of the Danube and spread heavy metals into the soil that could damage farmland.

Environmental group Greenpeace also said air pollutants released by the spill could pose a risk to people's health, although the government said they were not harmful.

Commissioner Gyorgy Bakondi told a news conference the plant, whose owners say the spill was triggered by natural causes, would restart production on Thursday or Friday.

"We gave a preliminary permission to reheat the power plant (serving the factory)," Bakondi said. "Letting it cool off too much would have caused damages worth billions of forints."

The firm -- the area's biggest employer, with 1,100 workers -- will remain under state control for up to two years during the relief efforts, which could cost tens of millions of dollars, he added.

The Hungarian Academy of Science (HAS), a state institution, said a survey of soil samples taken in Kolontar and the nearby town of Devecser on October 8 showed heavy metals in the red mud formed only a thin layer and posed no threat to water reserves.

It added, however, that the 1,000 hectares affected may not be able to be farmed, adding that land samples taken in the vicinity of the failed dam showed high arsenic levels.

Environmental group Greenpeace said high levels of nickel and cadmium metals had been found in land samples taken near the plant. There was no immediate comment from officials.

Greenpeace also measured air pollutants on Tuesday, and said on its website the concentration of atmospheric fine dust particles was up to six times higher than safe levels.

"Those in the area are at risk of very grave health consequences without protective equipment," Greenpeace said.

Greenpeace added that it expected the precise composition of the dust from the labs of the University of Vienna by Thursday.

"Inhaled, the toxic dust can eat away the upper respiratory tract, cause various irritations, asthma, chronic inflammations, and cancerous illnesses," Greenpeace said.

MAL Says Will Cooperate

The government said in a release that its own measurements proved the dust was not harmful."The concentration of airborne dust does not exceed the maximum safety level," the government said on Wednesday on its website dedicated to the sludge spill.

"The authorities consider the measurements conducted by various civil organizations with non-standardized methods to be invalid," it said.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited the area around the plant on Wednesday. He has blamed "human negligence" for Hungary's worst ecological disaster in which about 1 million cubic meters of the sludge leaked out of the plant's reservoir.

Disaster Commissioner Bakondi said the law required those responsible for the disaster to pay for the cleanup.

Lajos Tolnay, MAL's chairman, said the company would cooperate with an inquiry into what caused the spill. He blamed natural causes, according to an advance copy of an interview with him in the weekly Figyelo to be published on Thursday.

"The company must pay if it caused the damages itself," Tolnay was quoted as saying. "We feel that we are not responsible because our view is that fundamentally it was an unavoidable external force, that is, the development of natural conditions, that caused the catastrophe."

"My colleagues have done everything according to the rules," he added. He said MAL's third-party liability insurance was worth 20 million forints ($102,200) -- a fraction of the likely total cost of the disaster.

Hungarian police took over MAL's information systems after parliament rushed through emergency legislation allowing the government to take control of the company and its assets.

MAL's top executive, Zoltan Bakonyi, was released from police custody on Wednesday, his attorney said, after the court found the case against him insufficient to keep him behind bars.

Police said on Tuesday after detaining Bakonyi that he had had no contingency measures should the reservoir wall fail.

The fear of further disaster still looms large for people living close to the plant, even as a 600-meter-long emergency dam to prevent potential further spills from reaching the village were nearing completion.

Bakondi said the dam would be finished by Friday and villagers could move back into their homes over the weekend.

Kolontar was evacuated on Saturday after cracks appeared in the northern wall of the reservoir which could let out a further 500,000 cubic meters of caustic sludge if the wall failed again.

The latest checks showed no further deterioration, Gyorgyi Tottos, a spokeswoman for disaster crews, told Reuters.

(Editing by Alison Williams)

Photo Source: AP/Daily Mail


Hungary Says Spilled Toxic Red Sludge's Arsenic Content Exceeded Limit

By Edith Balazs

Bloomberg

13 October 2010

The arsenic content of the toxic sludge released in Hungary when a reservoir burst last week exceeded the limit for such waste in the vicinity of the wall breach, the Hungarian Academy of Science said today.

The collapse of the wall on Oct. 4 unleashed a torrent of toxic material on nearby villages that eventually reached the Danube through local waterways. The number of people killed by the toxic waste reached nine after a victim died in the hospital today, the country's emergency service said on its website.

Scientists are continuing tests to determine the reason for the elevated arsenic content, the academy in Budapest said in an e-mailed statement today. The waste material's content of cadmium, chromium, mercury, nickel, lead and zinc was within the limit, according to the statement.

"Water reserves aren't directly threatened by the toxic material as not even the most hazardous heavy metals contained in the sludge seeped deeper than 10 centimeters into the ground," the academy said.

An aerial photo of the reservoir, taken by the Hungarian company Interspect on June 11, showed a leak at the northern wall of the reservoir, the environmental group WWF Hungary said on its website. The company, which specializes in aerial photography, shared the photo with universities and environmental groups, Interspect director Gabor Bako told the Associated Press.

No Evidence

Hungary's government has no evidence of the toxic sludge reservoir that burst last week having leaked before the spill, disaster commissioner Gyorgy Bakondi told Bloomberg News in Veszprem, Hungary today.

The government's environmental agency examined the reservoir two weeks before the accident and found everything in order, AP said. Police are scrutinizing the photo as part of an investigation into the causes of the accident, according to AP.

There has been no shift at the endangered section of the reservoir wall and two of three dikes planned to contain a potential new spill have been completed, according to the government's website. The third is being elevated, it said.

The worst-hit towns of Kolontar and Devecser, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) southwest of Budapest, are now safe because of the dikes, Interior Minister Sandor Pinter told reporters in nearby Veszprem today.

Worker Statements

Workers at Magyar Aluminium Zrt., the alumina plant that owns the reservoir, testified against Zoltan Bakonyi, the detained top executive at the company, also known as Mal, Nepszabadsag said.

Investigators have more than 20 statements against Bakonyi, including from other executives, which claim that he had been aware of the diluted sludge seeping through the wall of the reservoir, the Budapest-based newspaper said, without citing anyone. A court in the town of Veszprem will decide today on the potential extension of Bakonyi's detention, a spokeswoman for the court told Bloomberg News.

Lajos Tolnay, Mal's chairman and 40 percent owner, said the accident was caused by "an unpreventable outside force, that is, the outcome of conditions in nature," Figyelo reported. Mal staff followed all the regulations governing sludge storage, he said in an interview with the Budapest-based weekly, to be published tomorrow.

The government has excluded the possibility of the accident having been a result of natural causes and "could only have been a human or technological error," Bakondi said in Veszprem today. Mal may resume production tomorrow or Friday after the state took control of the company and froze its assets, he said.


Fears of More Red Sludge in Hungary

By Dan Bilefsky

The New York Times

10 October 2010

DEVECSER, Hungary - In this small agricultural town, nestled along the front line of the environmental catastrophe shaking this proud central European nation, Otto Kovacs, like many residents, said he was determined not to join the growing ranks of the "sludge refugees."

As panic spread over the weekend that another part of the wall of a reservoir filled with caustic red sludge could collapse and produce a new, lethal torrent, Mr. Kovacs and his family defiantly went about harvesting their grapes to make wine. The ritual lasted through Sunday, even though it meant wearing gas masks and braving red mud, or worse, a second potentially deadly deluge from the reservoir, about two miles away.

"We are afraid that the reservoir can burst again," said Mr. Kovacs, a pharmacist and winemaker, making his way past a police barricade erected at the entrance to Devecser. "We just harvested our wine and we don't know if it is too toxic to drink. But we are determined to stay here and get on with our lives. Nobody knows what kind of toxins are in this ugly mud."

Nearly 200 million gallons of red mud poured into three villages on Monday after part of the wall around the concrete-lined reservoir collapsed, killing seven people and injuring hundreds more. On Sunday, senior government officials continued to sound the alarm about the possibility of another onslaught of red sludge after discovering that cracks in the reservoir's northern wall had widened even more overnight. The sun was temporarily stopping the cracks on the northern wall from widening, but nightfall brought the threat of continued expansion.

The bursting of the northern wall "is becoming a bigger risk," Environmental State Secretary Zoltan Illes said Sunday from a firehouse near the disaster area. "The damaged reservoir cannot be saved."

Gyorgi Tottos, spokeswoman for Hungary's Catastrophe Protection Unit, said she was hopeful that the concrete barrier nearly 1,970 feet long and some 16 feet high, built by emergency workers to contain the sludge, would stave off catastrophe if the reservoir's wall collapsed anew. "There is a risk and we are preparing for the worst," Ms. Tottos said, "but thank God, so far the wall appears to be holding."

In case the wall's resiliency proves short-lived, 800 residents of Kolontar, in the shadow of the industrial reservoir, were evacuated over the weekend while 300 soldiers, 130 police vehicles and four railway trains were on standby on Sunday in case Devecser's 6,000 residents needed to follow.

A sports center in the nearby town of Ajka, a safe area about three miles from the disaster zone, has been converted into a makeshift refugee center, where dozens of the newly homeless were arriving.

The reservoir, owned by MAL Rt., the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company, contains an industrial waste called "red mud," a byproduct of the process that converts bauxite to alumina, which is used to make aluminum.

The government has begun a criminal investigation into the reservoir collapse, and Mr. Illes, the environmental secretary, said Sunday that the government was considering filing criminal charges against the company.

He said the company had already accumulated $97.3 million in fines because of water damage from the mud. "The company is responsible for what is the biggest environmental disaster in the history of Hungary," he said. "So far they have been underplaying the crisis and someone has to pay for what has happened."

An MAL Rt. spokeswoman, Andrea Nemeth, said by phone on Sunday that she was hopeful that the company could resume aluminum production soon. The company expressed condolences to the families of those killed by the sludge and said it was willing to pay compensation "in proportion to its responsibility."

Mr. Illes was adamant that the company would not be allowed to resume production in the immediate future, even if that was likely to undermine a local economy where aluminum production is a financial lifeline.

He also faulted "weak" European Union regulations, which he said did not classify red mud as a toxic substance and had allowed the MAL Rt. to process the material. Hungary's environmental laws had designated the red mud as toxic, Mr. Illes said, but those rules were relaxed after Hungary joined the European Union in 2004.

The European Union's environmental spokesman, Joe Hennon, insisted that it enforced strict environmental regulations, but he acknowledged that Hungary's laws may have been more stringent.

Sandor Jaszberenyi contributed reporting from Budapest.

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