HUNGARY

Villagers struggle with cleanup effort after toxic mud floods

Five days after one million cubic metres of toxic red sludge spilled out of a burst reservoir at an alumina plant in western Hungary, residents of the nearby towns and villages are finding it increasingly hard to cope with the damages.

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Five days after one million cubic metres of toxic red sludge spilled out of a burst reservoir at an alumina plant in western Hungary, residents of the nearby towns and villages are finding it increasingly hard to cope with the damages.

Five people were killed and at least 150 injured in the resulting floods in seven villages around the Ajkai Timfoldgyar alumina plant, located 100 km west of Budapest. Three people are still missing and several hundred more left homeless after the red tide crashed through their homes and gardens.

The material, a residue of aluminium, is highly alkaline and slightly radioactive. Fears are growing that the pollution might spread to other European countries after it reached the Danube on Thursday. But on Friday officials said that alkalinity levels from the spill had subsided in the river and that there was no risk of a major environmental catastrophe across the region.

However, mercury, arsenic and chromium levels are still abnormally high in Kolontar and Devecser, the villages worst hit by the floods. Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, visited Kolontar on Thursday and said there was no point in even removing the rubble from part of the village as it was impossible to live there again.

 

Photos of Kolontar and Devecser in the aftermath of the mud spill

The village of Kolontar on October 5, 2010.
The village of Kolontar on October 5, 2010. Posted on Flickr by Adam Maracz

Photo posted on Picasa by Szombathely Város Tűzoltósága

Photo posted on Picasa by Szombathely Város Tűzoltósága

Posted on Flickr by Adam Maracz.

 

"The relief effort is not well organised"

Zsuzsa Halmay lives in Somlójenő, one of the villages in the area affected by the floods. She is a member of the Hungarian Green party, (Politics can be different - LMP), whose activists have been volunteering to help with the cleanup and relief efforts. 

 

We are trying to organise ourselves to help people in the affected areas, but it is very difficult because the scale of the damage is so huge. We are working on two fronts: volunteering to clean and disinfect damaged property, as well as collecting money, food, cloths and goods to distribute to the flood victims.

 

“Victims need psychological as well as material help”

 

Those who are directly in contact with infected areas need to wear special protection garments, masks, gloves and boots, because the mud is corrosive and can burn though skin. The army and firemen supervise relief and cleanup efforts at all times, distributing protection gear and maintaining public order. Right now, though, what people most need is help to carry their damaged furniture and goods out of their houses, to clean and salvage what can be. Volunteers are ready to help, but efforts are not well organised or coordinated. Families displaced by the floods feel isolated and badly informed. There us a growing feeling of desperation and hopelessness – victims need psychological as well as material help.

 

Soldier in full protection gear cleaning the streets of Kolontar on October 5.
Soldier in full protection gear cleaning the streets of Kolontar on October 5. Photo posted by Adam Maracz on Flickr

 

Flood victims have no idea where their new homes will be and when they will be ready. The worst-hit villages, Devecser and Kolontár, cannot be re-built on the same site. Even if the houses are repaired and the soil in gardens and fields cleaned out (which could take months, even years) villagers are afraid that there will be another disaster. There are several other reservoirs full of exactly the same toxic material near the one that burst – a disaster like this can happen again. Closing the plant poses another kind of problem, because thousands of people in the town of Ajkai and nearby villages depend on it for jobs.

 

“Companies simply cannot externalise all the risks and pocket all the profits”

 

In the future, authorities need to ensure that factories which produce or stock toxic products are submitted to strict and regular controls. Companies, for their part, need to make sure that their products are processed to be as harmless as possible. My father, who is a physicist, told me that it is possible to make alumina mud residue pH neutral before it comes out of the factory, by removing the lye in it.  Also, it needs to be mandatory for companies like these to subscribe to wide-reaching insurance coverage plans that can cover this kind of accident. Companies simply cannot externalise all the risks and pocket all the profits. Right now, there is no legal way to make the companies liable, and we can see that MAL Zt, the company which owns the damaged plant, does not have the financial means to deal with the aftermath of such a huge disaster.”