Hungarian spill and its controversies

By Anna Varfolomeeva

BEIJING— (October 11 —M4relay) – Controversies are cropping up in the Hungarian sludge spill that has directly affected the lives of over 7000 people. The spill may not be as highly contaminating as early reports put it.

Last week about one million cubic meters of the waste material leaked out of the alumina plant in western Hungary. The sludge killed seven people and injured over 100. Six persons were missing. Some rivers including a local branch of the Danube, a major European waterway, were fouled.

According to a Reuters report, “a by-product of alumina production, the thick, highly alkaline substance [that leaked from the plant] has a caustic effect on the skin. It contains heavy metals, such as lead, and is slightly radioactive. Inhaling its dust can cause lung cancer.”

Information about the company responsible for the catastrophe is quite veiled. Mal Magyar Alumínium Termelő és Kereskedelmi Zrt is often characterized as the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company. In fact, it is a transnational company registered in Hungary. MAL’s CEO, Martin Rümmelein, is Austrian. There are MAL-Product S.R.L in Romania, MAL-Deutschland GmbH in Germany and MAL Zrt in Hungary. MAL is the majority shareholder in the Slovene SILKEM d.o.o. and of the Bosnian Rudnici Boksita Jajce. All these facts make it even more difficult to find the responsible for the accident.

The situation is still in the process of developing. Workers started building an emergency dam on Sunday as cracks in a reservoir widened, threatening to unleash a second wave of toxic sludge on the village of Kolontar and nearby rivers.

Bloomberg Businessweek reported that “Hungary activated the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism as it seeks “urgent international assistance” in dealing with the spill.” Zoltan Illes, the environment state secretary, said authorities had amassed plaster and various types of acids along 100 kilometers (60 miles) of the river Marcal to neutralize the high alkaline content of any new spill before it reaches the Danube.

However, later on Sunday Reuters reported that sporadic dead fish was spotted on the Danube near Budapest. It had drifted downstream from the river Marcal, where the spill destroyed all wildlife. But according to the Ukrainian Business Resource, it was not alkali, but plaster and vinegar that killed fish and algae.

Illes said the government has begun a criminal investigation against the company responsible for the catastrophe. “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” he said.

According to Reuters, Illes also blamed “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, Illes said, adding that “those rules were relaxed after Hungary joined the European Union in 2004.”

According to EC Directive 2150/2002, the red sludge that accumulates as waste product in aluminum production is ‘not dangerous’. The current review of this law, COD/2009/0151, has so far retained that classification.

Greenpeace tested the red sludge samples and presented its own laboratory tests results that showed “surprisingly high” concentrations of heavy metals in the sludge.

At the same time, test results released by Hungary’s disaster agency show the pH level of the water where the slurry entered the Danube was under 9 — well below the 13.5 measured earlier in local waterways near the site of the catastrophe. That is diluted enough to prevent any biological damage, Interior Minister Sandor Pinter said.

“There is a good chance that the aquatic flora and fauna of the Danube and Raba rivers will be able to make it through this contamination,” Timea Petroczi, a spokeswoman for the country’s emergency services, said. “The pH value is quite favorable. Gypsum and acid is continually being added,” she said.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, “Hungarian financial markets haven’t been affected by the leak. The benchmark BUX stock index rose 0.6 percent, gaining for a fourth day after drug maker Gedeon Richter bought PregLem Holding SA of Switzerland. The forint weakened to 274.49 per euro from 270.93 as investors await details of the government’s plan to cut the budget deficit. The yield on the benchmark five-year government bond rose to 6.518 percent from 6.479 percent” the Bloomberg report said.

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