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Europe

Hungarians fear repeat of toxic industrial accident

Hungarian environmentalists are worried that there could be a repeat of the Kolontar toxic waste spill that left nine people dead. A decrepit plant in Almasfuzito is an accident waiting to happen, they say.

An emergency worker stands guard at the site of the original leak

While authorities guard against further disaster in Kolontar, there may be danger elsewhere

Almasfuzito is a village some 80 kilometers (50 miles) outside the Hungarian capital, Budapest, and it may well be the next victim of another toxic spill.

Slightly jittery officials recently accompanied a group of hand-picked western journalists through a former aluminum factory next to the main road in Almasfuzito. The plant, once a source of pride in Communist Eastern Europe, was forced to close in the 1990s amid market reforms, and more than 1,000 people lost their jobs.

The former aluminum factory in Almasfuzito

The desolate factory was once a source of pride

The factory left behind a decrepit reservoir filled with toxic red sludge, a by-product of aluminum production. It resembles that of the aluminum plant in western Hungary, near the village of Kolontar, which caused a catastrophe when some 800,000 cubic meters of the sludge flooded towns and villages, contaminating a region of 40 square kilometers with heavy metals and other chemicals.

Martian landscape

Sandor Pirik, the director of Tata's Environment Protection, the private firm responsible for the complex, has admitted that there are risks. There could be an earthquake, he told Deutsche Welle: "We don't know how the reservoirs will behave in such a situation."

The workers constantly monitor the reservoir, because flooding from the nearby Danube River, one of Europe's main waterways, is another potential problem, Pirik said. On several occasions in the past, the rising water of the Danube had reached the dam of the reservoir, which is located almost adjacent to the river.

A man, Bela Farkas, standing on solid red ground

Those looking after the site say much of the reservoir has solidified

In an effort to convince visiting reporters that there was no reason for concern, Tata's environmental director Bela Farkas jumped onto what looked like a red Martian landscape.

Locals complain of leakage

"At the plant where disaster struck the sludge was liquid. Here that's not the case," Farkas said. "This sludge is hard, that's why I can even jump on it. We also have covered most of the reservoir, while the plant in Ajka, near Kolontar, didn't even start to do that."

But downstream in Budapest, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is not convinced. "We don't know how stable these reservoirs are," said director Gabor Figeczky. Locals in Almasfuzito had already complained about leakage, he said.

Figeczky also pointed out that, due to the outdated technology used to build the reservoir so close to the river, an accident could endanger drinking water supplies.

"In case of a flood, the water from the Danube simply flows into the reservoir," he said, adding that in case of leakage from the reservoir, the red sludge trickles into the river.

"If this red mud is still as alkaline as it was in the case of Kolontar, it will surely kill lots of the fish and lots of the wildlife in the Danube, and it will also threaten the drinking water supply from the Danube."

Communist legacy

Sign in front of reservoir says: Dangerous Waste, Entry Forbidden

Signs warn against toxic contamination at the site

Some worry about the risk of living near the reservoir while others, like Almasfuzito mayor Lukacs Karansebesy, are bolstered by fond memories of the past, before the aluminum plant's 1997 closure.

"From my childhood I grew up with the idea that this was the biggest aluminum plant in Central and Eastern Europe," the mayor said, looking across the hardened red sludge. "We could not imagine that one day this would all be over. The plant meant security for people. Like my father, I worked here. Its closure was a shock not only for me but for all the villagers of whom I am now the mayor."

Little by little, the legacy of communist industrial policies is coming to light. Almasfuzito is not the only victim: the European Union says it has identified several potentially hazardous chemical industry sites in the region.

Villagers face an uncertain future as authorities and the international community ponder what steps to take to avoid yet another environmental disaster.

Author: Stefan Bos, Almasfuzito, Hungary (db)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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