The red mud catastrophe of Hungary: natural or man-made disaster?

Overnight the world has woken up to intimate knowledge of the process of extracting aluminium from bauxite and its by-product the red mud, which devastated several villages, including Kolontár and Devecser, in the SouthWest of Hungary on Monday, 4th October 2010, bringing with it a long term threat of environmental pollution in several countries.

Gergely Simon, in his article on asserts that environmentalists in Hungary and elsewhere have been busy over several years pointing out the dangers of this substance and especially the way it is stored in Hungary. The Clean Air Working Party, an active environmental group, has been bombarding members of the Hungarian government since 2003 with its warnings. It pointed out that the approximately 30 million tons of this material is long overdue for neutralisation and its containers/reservoirs for recultivation. Hungary has 4 reservoirs in which to store this by-product of aluminium production, most of which is threatening populated areas and major rivers. Outdoor storage carries a danger of its dried up dust travelling on the wind and harming humans, even without a catastrophe, like the one at Kolontár on 4th October 2010. Additionally, all 4 reservoirs can leak and reach the water table, thus causing untold damage to human health that way. The Clean Air Working Party’s warnings have so far remained unanswered by the authorities.

So production of the red mud goes on unhindered with its method of storage unchanged. As a by-product of aluminium smelting it is the result of bauxite being treated with a strong caustic substance to extract its aluminium content. What remains is this red sludge with a high and very caustic pH value as well as other toxic materials, like heavy metals. For every ton of aluminium there will be 2 tons of red mud. Hungary is estimated to produce 6-700 thousand tons a year. In other parts of the world this mud is further utilised by extracting its valuable content, like its alkaline base to reuse in the production process. This obviously isn’t happening in Hungary as in the recent crisis US and Australian experts couldn’t understand the mud’s highly caustic nature as in their countries the same mud, having gone through 5-7 washes, is only slightly caustic.

Air photo of the broken dam by DigitalGlobe.Air photo of the broken dam by DigitalGlobe. The Hungarian aluminium industry was privatised in the mid-1990s. The new owners bought out the old state owned factories and production plants, which were and still are highly profitable, for a fraction of their real value. It is believed that the low price was in exchange for a promise to clean up the industry’s act by spending the billions necessary to make it environmentally safe. According to a 2003 estimate by The Clean Air Working Party “the storage and neutralising costs of this red mud are approximately 50-100 thousand Hungarian forints (200-400 Euros) per ton”. However, there is no information available about the clear up operation which The Magyar Aluminiumtermelõ és Kereskedelmi Zrt. (MAL) has contractual obligations to carry out.

Looking at the pictures and the now slowly appearing analysis data of the red mud, there is no doubt this sludge has not been cleaned up. It is still as caustic as it left the production process through pipes to be stored in the open. The exact content of the red flood that killed seven and injured nearly 150 people, inundating several villages over more than a thousand hectares (2500 acres) on the 4th October, is still not clear.

ÁNTSZ (The State Public Health Authority) announced on 5th October that the mud is not toxic. However, their statement, that the legal limits set down in 2009 were not reached, is based on somewhat questionable data from a 1987 measurement. The value of 11.8 pH from 1987 is drastically inaccurate considering the measurement taken since 4th October 2010 in Kolontár of 13.5pH. (The pH scale is exponential, so a value of 9pH is 10 times more caustic than 8pH!)

According to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) there are no toxic heavy metals in the mud. This contrasts markedly with measurements recently taken by Greenpeace, which have found carcinogenic quantities of arsenic, chromium and the nerve poison mercury in a sample taken in Kolontár. The Academy later explained that they measured the liquid, not the mud and even that somewhere else, not in Kolontár. According to Benedek Jávor, president of the Environmental Committee of the Hungarian Parliament, the MTA has not even tested the mud for toxic arsenic and mercury and then denied that there were any toxic heavy metals in there. The statement by the owners of the aluminium works, stressing that the mud is not dangerous, is especially outrageous in the light of the many caustic burn injuries people have suffered and are currently in hospital being treated for.

Photo: Ádám MaráczPhoto: Ádám Marácz It is undeniable that beyond the human tragedy and the complete obliteration of dozens of households and whole villages what we have here is the complete extinction of life in the Torna stream and the river Marcal and even the MTA stated that “the agricultural area around the reservoir had suffered such harm that even with a complete removal and replacement of the soil it will not be usable for agriculture for a considerable time, if ever.” While the dumping of acids, gypsum and nitrates saved the life of the rivers Rába and Danube, we are still unsure of the long term affect of these substances on wildlife. If there are really heavy metals in the mud they can be dissolved by the acids dumped in the water and pollute both the soil and the river downstream.

Another interesting feature of this crisis has been governmental attitudes which show a demand for strict punishment of those responsible, while calling on the population to pray and donate freely. In their statements to the foreign press, however, they seem to play down the seriousness of the crisis.

One thing is sure: since the fall of Stalinism nobody had tried to solve or make the new owners to solve the problem represented by this red mud. It may be that the state authorities are too weak and don’t care or – more likely – there is collusion of a political nature through corruption and personal commercial interest. (The owners of MAL Zrt. are well known for their closeness to certain political circles, one of them having had a joint venture in the past with Ferenc Gyurcsány, a former Prime Minister). One thing is sure: those that got rich producing aluminium since 1995 in and around Ajka cannot make the surrounding population pay for the environmental harm their industry had done to them.

Greenpeace Hungary has actively assisted the analysis of the red mud by taking samples in Kolontár and sending it to the Bálint Analytical Institute in Budapest as well as to the Federal Environmental Office in Vienna for analysis. On their web site you can find the results of both tests, listing double the arsenic levels usual for this type of by-product, which means that there has been an estimated 50 tons of arsenic released by the inundation. The levels of arsenic in the ditches around Kolontár showed 25 times the safe levels for drinking water.

Photo: Ádám MaráczPhoto: Ádám Marácz Greenpeace was scathing about the government and all authorities that have tried to belittle the dangers and kept the public in the dark with misinformation. Zsolt Szegfalvi, Greenpeace Hungary’s spokesman asked: “Why was it left to Greenpeace to reveal and make public the levels of toxins in the red mud?” He called upon the government to reveal every bit of information that would truthfully inform the public how serious is this spill. He also demanded that the government forces MAL Zrt. and its billionaire owners to compensate fully all the victims for all their losses and pay for the entire cleanup operation from their profits.

There is a heartfelt sympathy going out to the victims of this disaster from all around the world, backed up by donations made by ordinary people the world over. This is understandable as the horrendous pictures of several villages, their people and their animals, struggling to survive the red flood appeared on the TV screens, in newspapers and on the Internet. But should you and I pay for something that was caused by negligence, the pursuit of profit and a callous disregard for even the most elementary safety standards in an industry long recognised as a major polluter of land, air and water? No, no and again NO!

The only way to safeguard the world from disasters of this kind is to rid it of the economic and political system that breeds this callous disregard for the health and well being of ordinary people. Capitalism breeds this evil because it is based on the profit motive which overrides all other considerations and because it is the rule of the unaccountable few over the disenfranchised many. The privatisation of this particular factory was not unusual in post-Stalinist Hungary. The old adage of “It’s not what you know but who you know that matters!” was the guiding principle of the early and mid-1990’s privatisation wave. With the excuse of the need for modernisation valuable state assets were wholesale stripped and passed on to those close to the powerful up on high. The web of corruption already existing made sure that no binding clauses were put in contracts relating to modernising, making safe or upgrading of any industry sold for very little with the excuse of being outdated. In those few cases where these clauses were included, nobody since then cared about or enforced its provisions. The trade union movement was all but obliterated and is still at a very low level for an EU country. Health and safety at work is practically non-existent, in spite of the millions of words in laws which are never enforced. The Health and Safety Inspectorate has one inspector for over a thousand factories, so inspections are not exactly frequent or thorough. Corruption has its role to play there as well, as an envelope in the pocket will make sure that the inspector will not look too closely at anything and this way all is safe and according to the law. One of the news channels reported after 4th October that it was less than two months ago that the reservoir received a completely clean bill of health in an inspection, but all Hungarians I discussed this with just smiled and shrugged their shoulders at this news. “It means nothing!” said one of them, “We have those in my factory but accidents are still frequent due to unsafe equipment and even more unsafe working practices”.

The only social and economic system that will make sure that your village, your town, your house or flat, your place of work and your entire country is safe is socialism based on workers’ democracy. Can you imagine a committee of workers, consumers and locals running this aluminium factory allowing its waste storage to be this dangerous? No way! In a socialist economic and political system the wealth created by the labour power of every worker will be put at the disposal of ordinary people to plan, run and enjoy their work, their life and from those resources there will be enough for safety and nothing for fat cat profits of the rulers. When everybody is a ruler, nobody is a ruler.

The red flood of Kolontár, Hungary on 4th October 2010 was undoubtedly a man made, not a natural disaster. But it was made not just by any man, but a capitalist industrialist, who cared for his own billions and his shareholders’ profits more than the life and health of people and the environment. Get rid of him and the system he represents, and you will never need to donate a penny again to disaster funds!

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