Hungary Probes for Causes of Red Sludge Disaster

BUDAPEST, Hungary, October 15, 2010 (ENS) – Hungarian Police are interrogating a second suspect in Hungary’s worst ecological disaster, the October 4 spill of toxic red sludge from an aluminum plant in western Hungary that killed at least eight people and injured more than 150 others. Fifty injured people are still hospitalized, including two in critical condition.

One of the executives of MAL Hungarian Aluminium Zrt, identified by police only as Jozsef D., is “subject to suspicion beyond reasonable doubt for criminal negligence, leading to public endangerment and environmental damages,” the police said in a statement today.

Jozsef D. refused to testify and protested the accusation, said police, who did not take the suspect into custody.

The red sludgy mess covers three villages in the vicinity of MAL’s Ajka aluminum plant. (Photo by Hornyak Daniel courtesy Government of Hungary)

According the the National Bureau of Investigation, “The suspect failed to prepare measures that were necessary for disaster relief efforts, as well as the protection of life, physical safety of people and assets during similar disasters and failed to establish defence structures, signalling and alarm systems that would mitigate the impact of such disasters.”

The managing director of MAL Zrt, Zoltan Bakonyi, was arrested Monday and held in custody while the Hungarian government nationalized the company.

Interior Minister Sandor Pinter says company documents have been seized, but as many as two to three months are required to review them thoroughly.

Disaster Relief Commissioner, Gyorgy Bakondi, who was appointed Wednesday, has given preliminary consent to restart the MAL Zrt aluminum plant in the town of Ajka, where the sludge reservoir gave way, spilling some one million cubic meters of caustic waste from aluminum production.

The government had shuttered the plant while a protective wall was constructed between the source of the spill and the nearby village of Kolontar.

That 620 meter (680 yard) long dam is now complete. It has been built 2.75 meters (9 feet) high, to a height of one meter above the high point of the sludge wave.

Once production begins, the currently empty but already inspected reservoir 10/A will be used to hold the caustic red waste from aluminum production.

The red sludge remaining in the damaged reservoir is being pumped into reservoir 11 to remain there “permanently,” the government’s hazmat team said.

Bakondi says that police are now guarding the company’s premises, and experts are inspecting the company’s computer system in a search for answers. Bakondi has met with the MAL Zrt management, who indicated their cooperation with the investigation.

Bakondi has initiated a comprehensive tax audit of MAL Zrt. By the beginning of next week, he said, a “comprehensive, credible picture of the company’s true financial situation will emerge.”

The government has said it will hold MAL Zrt responsible for all damages resulting from the spill.

Local governments have already spent more than 500 million forints (US$2.55 million) to cope with the flood of caustic sludge, said Pinter, who estimates the total damages could run up to billions of forints.

The MAL Zrt leadership says in a statement the company website that they “strongly reject any allegation” of misconduct and say the sludge reservoir was not filled too full. “The company strictly complied with the technical specifications. Over the past ten years, close to HUF 30.3 billion spent on maintenance and renovations.”

Cleanup workers try to cope with the mess in the village of Devecser ((Photo by Hornyak Daniel courtesy Government of Hungary)

The aluminum plant is being restarted to allow the company to make enough revenue to pay for the damages as the government says it was under-insured. In addition, the plant is being restarted to permit the employees to keep their jobs.

Meanwhile, some of the 7,000 people evacuated last weekend from the nearest village, Kolontar, are being allowed to return to their homes, and today some 300 people returned.

The government said Thursday, “Drinking water is safe. The airborne dust concentration will induce increased irritation in line with the amount of drying, but at present this has not reached the recommended maximum safety threshold; the use of masks and other protective gear is recommended.”

Those resettling are being supplied with air filter face masks and instructions for their use.

Engineers who have inspected the damaged reservoir have not detected any additional shifting or cracking, but expert inspections are ongoing. Engineers have found some cracks on the north wall and have warned at a second spill could occur.

Disaster relief efforts on agricultural land have begun, and soil analysis is ongoing.

Hungary’s red sludge disaster may be on the agenda of the European Parliament’s plenary session next week.

Hungarian MEP Agnes Hankiss (Photo courtesy Office of the MEP)

Hungarian MEP Agnes Hankiss said, “Hungary’s red sludge disaster has demonstrated the need for strong European regulations and a most effective and stricter control of private companies working with hazardous materials.”

The European Commission has prepared an action plan on the prevention of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear disasters and terrorist attacks, to be discussed by the European Parliament in the coming weeks.

During the parliamentary debate of the action, the Hungarian Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) intends to propose stricter regulations on the storage and handling of hazardous materials be prepared with urgency.

In most EU member states, private sector companies play an increasing role in the manufacturing, storage, protection and transport of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials.

The current efficiency of their data provision and reporting obligations, however, is unsatisfactory, says the Hungarian EPP, since security regulations and rules are often “overwritten by the need to maximize profits.”

WWF Hungary is urging Hungarian government to use its upcoming EU presidency to push for reducing the human and natural risks of large stockpiles of poorly maintained and regulated mining wastes across eastern Europe.

For more ENS coverage of the Hungarian sludge disaster, see: Eight Dead in Hungarian Sludge Spill, Company Boss Arrested, October 11, 2010. and Red Aluminum Sludge Flood Kills Four in Hungary, October 5, 2010

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