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29 November 2010, Gateway House

Letters from Budapest – a sludge in the Danube

An account of how Hungary handled the world’s worst environmental disaster since the Bhopal and Chernobyl gas tragedies which, at one stage threatened to ruin the Danube.


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A Sludge in the Danube  [1]

A Sludge in the Danube

A day after I landed in Budapest, on the 4th of October, more than a million cubic meters  of red alkaline sludge from an aluminium plant located in Western Hungary whooshed through the village of Kolontor and the town of Devecser, killing a few and rendering thousands homeless. A couple of small rivers in the sludge’s path are considered dead as nothing can survive in their waters for a long, long time. A greater danger not only for Hungary but to the’ Danube countries’ downstream was the possibility of untreated sludge ruining the iconic river and affecting the lives of millions.

The sludge did reach the Danube but by the time it got there it had been rendered relatively harmless. In a swift containment action the Hungarian authorities successfully prevented a localized disaster from becoming international.

After Chernobyl, this sludge had the potential to become Europe’s worst environmental disaster. However, as many  Hungarians now  acknowledge, their new rightist government headed by Viktor Obran did a good job of managing and containing something so devastating; so much so that a few weeks after its occurrence, the sludge has gone off the headlines and into the inner pages of newspapers.

Coming from India, what impressed me most was the lack of a public spat and an enervating blame-game that could have slowed the undoubtedly timely and effective response to the problem. The only major action taken post-sludge was the arrest of the alleged perpetrators, the owners of the Ajka aluminium plant – a particularly insensitive and boorish lot who ‘generously’ offered to pay for the funeral expenses of the seven who were killed. The factory itself resumed production within days of the disaster and the reluctant victims are now being cajoled and compelled to return to their sludge-hit homes in the village of Kolontor which the government and many public-spirited citizens have cleared up. Some were also compensated for their losses and unlike Bhopal, where life came to a virtual halt, here life is moving on.

I found it incredible that Budapest, not too far from sludge-hit Kolontor, was so quiet soon after the disaster occurred. The debate on the sludge has shifted to a more investigative level – one aimed at preventing a repeat. Had the death toll been anything close to a hundred I am sure the outcry would have been much louder for much longer. Even without loss of human lives, had the Hungarians not reacted so swiftly and allowed untreated sludge to reach the Danube, the resultant outrage would have been much louder, longer-lasting and much more international. In a deeply indebted country like Hungary whose economy has shrunk by over 7 % last year and household debt is close to 30 billion Euros, the sludge could capture and retain public attention only for a while. Why? The government’s robust and quick response to the disaster contributed to quick containment.

There’s a lesson in this for us. There’s a method behind Hungary’s post-sludge recovery: careful and rapid investigation and response. A day after the disaster, scientists from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences reached the spot and in less than two weeks they had released a comprehensive report on it. The sludge, they concluded after sampling soil in several places, had not penetrated more than 10 cm anywhere therefore making the recovery and reuse of land relatively easy.

Next, the task of neutralizing the alkaline content of the sludge in the affected rivers. That happened within hours of the disaster, helping to bring down the toxicity to near-normal levels before the waters of the sludge ruined rivers which reached the Danube. Steps were taken to contain further spillage. Simultaneously the clean-up began with some earnestness and despatch. There is still a fear that the wind-borne dried sludge dust could affect the health of many in it its path but not much has been heard of that for now.

Impressive response is one thing; but how did the Hungarian authorities miss out on what was – and still is – such an obvious danger, in the first place? The obvious cause of the sludge was clearly years of lax inspections of the offending aluminium plant by government agencies which simply repeated whatever the owners of the plant reported to them. Had these agencies done their job of proper inspection, this disaster need never have happened. (The sludge is a by-product of aluminium production, a waste but with enough metals intact to be considered worth storing until economical processes to extract them were hopefully found. With time the quantity has continued to grow, stored in huge reservoirs holding millions of cubic meters of the stuff. ) This Communist-era practice of storing useless waste would have been put an end to and whatever had accumulated would have been safely disposed of.

The sludge mess has much to do with a flawed privatization process that got rid of state assets across Eastern Europe and Russia at huge losses to the countries involved. Many of us in India, cynical from our scam-a-day exposes outraging and entertaining us simultaneously, would nevertheless be astonished to know that there is nothing quite comparable in world history to the scale of larceny practiced in Russia and Eastern Europe since the fall of Communism. State assets worth billions, possibly trillions, were sold for a song and now huge metal works and petroleum complexes amongst several others are in the hands of dubious private owners who do not parade their triumphs with yachts and football clubs for trophies. The Hungarian aluminium industry is a classic example of this.

If we cribbed and ranted at the sale of BALCO to Vedanta, then consider this: the Hungarian aluminium plant, a major producer of the metal in Europe, was practically gifted away to its present owners for less than US $ 50,000 in 1997 in a complex series of sequential contracts – none of which had any rationale since each got the state much less than its rightful price. The evidence is now available publicly on the website of the successor company, MNV Zrt. There were several opportunities to straighten out these deals and derive much more value for the state but nothing was done – not even when Eastern Europe joined the European Union (EU) with their baggage of antiquated manufacturing plants using hazardous processes.

It is common knowledge here that the EU tolerates astonishing levels of corruption and malfeasance and acts on little, until a crisis hits. The Greek bailout, now followed by another for the Irish which is sucking in gigantic sums of money, is symbolic of the way the EU is operating today, with expediency taking precedence over a robust tackling of past wrongs. The sludge need never have happened had governance issues and safety at the time of European integration not been ignored.

We in India have been led to believe that compromise and accommodation, at the cost of integrity in public life, is the price we have to pay for staying together as a nation.

The EU, nowhere near being a state but much more of a union, seems to think no differently.

[1] To see some of the  best images go to

Dr. Uday Balakrishnan, is a Visiting Fellow at the Central European University in Budapest.

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