After a loss of hope and security, things will get back to normal in the area hit by the red sludge catastrophe. With rebuilding and restoration on schedule, chances are that the works can end by 30 June in line with the Government’s decision, Government Commissioner György Bakondi said at a visit to the disaster area earlier this week.
On 4 October last year, private company Magyar Alumínium Zrt. had the western lock of caisson X of its red sludge reservoir broken, releasing 6-700 thousand cubic metres of highly alkaline red sludge mixed with water and flooding the lower parts of nearby villages. The red sludge catastrophe killed 10 people and injured 265.
From the first moment, Government agencies, defence forces, police squads, disaster relief units, ambulance and fire brigades started disaster relief and rescue operations. A Government Commissioner was appointed, a Rebuilding Coordination Centre was set up, and Mal Zrt., the company which caused the disaster, was placed under state supervision to arrange for its safe operations. From day one of the disaster, hard work has been done by multiple participants in full cooperation, with a union of efforts which is still perceptible.
Due to the joint work performed by the Government, local governments and charities in the past four months, the results are already conspicuous. The factory poses no danger any longer. The reservoir has a reinforced wall, with new bridges and dams in place, railway traffic restored, half of outer areas cleaned, collapsed houses demolished and reconstruction underway.
The Government is committed to ending reconstruction by 30 June. Indeed, it plans to create 21st century living conditions, perhaps better than earlier, for victims. Also, the Government is keen on making the affected villages liveable and pleasant places to inhabit. To this end, it started negotiations with local governments to identify community projects (e.g. new playgrounds, parks, community institutions) that local councillors and people need so that communities can gain strength, make headway and continue to develop.
Building new houses
The flood of red sludge mostly devastated villages that are close to the reservoir (Devecser, Kolontár and Somlóvásárhely), damaging some 319 residential properties. Although the catastrophe was caused by a private company, the Government will not leave anyone alone and will reconstruct the demolished houses by 30 June to restore order in the villages. The victims were offered a choice between used and new flats. Works are now underway to rebuild houses and to make agreements on the used properties as requested. The new houses will be equipped with public utilities. Authorities are conducting free crash procedures to speed up reconstruction.
Also, the Government summarised compensation claims (vehicles, clothes, food, livestock, kitchen gardens, etc.), to be settled mostly with the support of charities. Devecser has a furniture showroom offering the products of domestic companies.
The disaster area will preserve a house as a reminder of Hungary’s biggest-ever industrial catastrophe with ecological consequences. Also, Devecser will receive a memorial park which is expected to be inaugurated on the catastrophe’s anniversary on 4 October.
Most outer areas cleaned
Damage relief in outer areas took place after a thorough assessment of damage and a set of surveys by scientists and experts. These works are still in progress, with nearly half of the outer areas—38 hectares—already cleaned from red sludge. Back gardens will receive new soil as the previous layers were removed along with the sludge spill.
The Government offered to buy the now useless plots from damaged land owners and farmers or to give them replacements. Many have taken the opportunity and even received a subsidy for loss of income as mitigation.
Mal Zrt. to introduce dry technology from 28 February
After the catastrophe, the Government placed Mal Zrt. under state supervision to make the the factory’s operations safe for both 6,000 workers and nearby villages.
State supervision allowed for successive investments in the area of the company’s red sludge reservoirs, and the factory now has safe working conditions. Also, state supervision made the factory introduce dry technology from 28 February. This is a big step forward as the catastrophe was precisely caused by the storage of red sludge mixed with water, which made it liquid and highly alkaline, hence toxic.
With the start of the new technology on 28 February, red sludge will be neutralised and cease to endanger the environment. The factory has acquired the certificates of system conformity required for the technological changeover and a standard environmental license.
No toxic discharge from red sludge reservoirs
György Kossa, Chairman of the State Supervision Committee for Magyar Alumínium Termelő és Kereskedelmi (Mal) Zrt., declared in response to a recent Greenpeace communication that the origin of the agency’s sample and the date of sampling are unknown, and a portion of the sample is taken from a location just before the neutralisation point of alkaline sludge, which is why it cannot be authentic. As is common knowledge, such traditional red sludge reservoirs have been surrounded by an inherent mass of alkaline leachate for several decades. The only way out is to perform drainage and neutralisation. The supervisory authority managed to achieve this by Mal Zrt., with the establishment of two automated neutralisation points, the first to go live from 28 February and the second from 25 March. In addition, security projects have been underway around the reservoirs. The damaged reservoir X will soon close down with a new 105 meters long and 12 meters deep diaphragm wall against it. Experts from the Polytechnic University are now performing a technical examination of the main body of the dam of reservoir IX, and the liquid accumulated atop is being pumped off. Also, plans are underway to build a new drencher reservoir under No. XII. It may take two years to complete industrial water management and the full rainwater drainage system, but in the meantime, live waters will remain protected from any alkaline leachate released by the aluminium oxide factory.
Police still investigating to identify responsibility
The National Investigation Bureau has indicted Mal Zrt.’s CEO for the misdemeanour of negligent professional misconduct causing a fatal mass accident. Prosecution is underway against another three people. The police sequestered the company managers’ assets to prevent their withdrawal, and the court will decide on the extent to which private assets should be involved in indemnifying victims.
Some 1.8 billion forints raised to help victims
Reconstruction is in progress with national cooperation never seen before under the control and with the support of the Government. To assist the inhabitants of the area hit by the red sludge catastrophe, the Government set up the Hungarian Damage Relief Fund, with 1,774 billion forints raised so far by domestic and foreign donors. The Damage Relief Board is responsible for deciding on the use of donations under strict laws and for continuously informing the public. The Board’s decisions are checked by a three-member supervisory board.
New disaster prevention law underway
The disaster in Kolontár and the unprecedented flood and inland water in the past few months have made the Government decide to submit a new disaster prevention bill to Parliament as early as spring. (kim.gov.hu)