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Disaster recovery

April 4, 2011

Six months ago, a deadly red sludge from an alumina plant devastated part of western Hungary. Many villagers have now returned to the region, but risks remain.

Hungarian fire fighters clean a yard flooded by toxic mud in Devecser, Hungary, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010
Ten people died as a result of the toxic spill in HungaryImage: AP

On October 4, 2010, an alumina plant at Ajka, Hungary, 160 kilometers (99 miles) outside Budapest unleashed a torrent of toxic red sludge in a wave reaching up to two meters deep.

Since then, residents of the nearby village of Kolontar have been cleaning up homes and gardens that were submerged in the toxic sludge. One million cubic meters of the sludge, a byproduct of bauxite used in aluminum production, flooded the village and the surrounding areas.

Ten people died and at least 150 others were injured as the toxic substance ate through the clothing of the unsuspecting villagers. It was Hungary's worst ever chemical accident.

The area covered by the toxic deluge, roughly 40 square kilometers (15.4 square miles), resembled a Martian landscape, red and lifeless.

Life after the spill

The long-term impact of the spill has still not been fully determined and the government is having to step in and take a hand in the recovery of the region.

A Hungarian soldier, wearing a chemical protection gear, cleans a street flooded by toxic in the town of Devecser, Hungary, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010
Hundreds of homes were drenched in the red sludgeImage: AP

"We have banned the planting of vegetables," disaster commissioner Gyorgy Bakondi told Deutsche Welle. "We still don't know the consequences in the long term."

Hundreds of homes were affected, said Bakondi, with some 60 families requesting to be relocated.

The firm that ran the plant in Ajka, the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company, is now run by the government. Authorities have also frozen the assets of the owners amid a criminal investigation against them, according to Bakondi.

Opposition voices

But environmentalists and opposition party members are still unhappy with the proceedings. They say authorities were aware of the risks posed by the plant because of another, smaller incident at the Ajka plant in the 1990s.

"One month after the disaster, the government said that the company was guilty," said Rebeka Szabo, a green liberal parliamentarian of the Politics Can Be Different Party (LMP).

She said the process should have gone through the courts before making such a judgment, and that the government was putting too much of the blame on the company, when it should have been held more accountable itself.

"I felt that they wanted to push the responsibility on the company, although our study revealed as well that a lot depended on the authorities," said Szabo. "And they made a lot of mistakes in the past which led, finally, to this tragedy."

An aerial view of streets covered with red mud in Devecser, 164 kms southwest of Budapest, Hungary, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010
Officials are still trying to ensure such a disaster doesn't happen againImage: AP

Who has to pay?

While legal procedures are under way, concerns remain that Hungarian taxpayers will have to foot the multimillion euro bill.

Hungary, currently serving its six-month European Union presidency, is under pressure to propose a bill to oblige European countries to have enough available funds in case of disaster.

Among those pressuring Hungary is Reinhard Bütikofer, a German member of the European Parliament and vice chairman of the Greens and European Free Alliance Group.

"Why don't we have mandatory insurance schemes that make sure that when something happens, the polluter pays?" Bütikofer asked. "It should not be at the taxpayer's expense."

Hungary isn't alone. There is a general concern among EU members that, especially in former Soviet bloc countries, the desire for quick profits sidelined environmental considerations during the wild rush of privatization of outdated industries following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The EU and other organizations have identified several hazardous chemical sites in more that 100 contaminated areas, among others in Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.

Author: Stefan Bos, Budapest / sjt
Editor: Nicole Goebel

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