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Hungary: Toxic waste blame game

Taking a close look at the Fidesz government's response to the deadly red mud spill.

Hungary Red Sludge Aluminum Factory Spill
Hungarian volunteers wearing protective suits walk on the former train station in Kolontar, a village in the path of the recent red mud spill, on Oct. 14, 2010. (Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images)

GRAZ, Austria — One way Hungary's red sludge spill was no Hurricane Katrina: The government quickly recognized the gravity of the event and won early praise for its handling of the crisis.

But as experts take a second look at those emergency measures, some are finding them high-handed. There is speculation that the government might be making up for lax oversight that could have prevented the spill in the first place. What is clear is that a population until recently accustomed to government control of industries has taken comfort in its fast-acting leaders.

The crisis began just after noon on Oct. 4 when a reservoir containing the by-product from an aluminium processing plant burst its banks, sending a towering wave of caustic, red sludge crashing through nearby villages. Nine people are confirmed dead, mostly from drowning in the initial torrent, but others only succumbed to their injuries later. About 40 people remain hospitalized, many with chemical burns, and about 280 properties were damaged along with about 800 hectares of farmland. Life in the Marcal river, a tributary of the Danube, is said to have been completely wiped out.

The rightist Fidesz government, elected by a landslide in April, was quick to make its presence felt.

"The government's reaction was fast and very disciplined, which is why the public's reaction to its handling of the issue is very positive," said Krisztian Szabados, an analyst from the consulting firm Political Capital.

Environment Minister Zoltan Illes was among the first on the scene, with Prime Minister Viktor Orban hot on his heels. Their timely action appears to have averted serious downstream damage to the Danube and the risk of a second wave, while those affected have been reassured they will eventually receive adequate compensation.

On Saturday, Orban warned of "very severe" consequences for those who were to blame for the spill. On Monday, the blame appeared to have been apportioned when Orban told parliament of the arrest of Zoltan Bakonyi, the managing director of MAL, the company that owns the reservoir and whose father, Arpad Bakonyi, owns 30 percent of MAL's shares. The younger Bakonyi's handling of the situation had infuriated many: At the height of the crisis he said that the mud was not toxic but that people "should not bathe in it," meanwhile taking time to reassure journalists about the negative impact it might have on MAL's accounts.

"MAL was not prepared at all for such a crisis. The way they communicated with the public was outrageous," said Szabados. 

Adding to MAL's troubles was an aerial photograph released by WWF, an environmental
campaign group, taken on June 11, that appears to show a leak in the reservoir wall.

But now the government has been criticized for how it handled Bakonyi's arrest.

"The prime minister informing lawmakers about the arrest of Mr. Bakonyi served communication purposes quite well, but it was questionable from a democratic point of view," said Andras Toth-Czifra, an analyst at Vision Politics, another political consultancy. A court freed Bakonyi on Wednesday saying there was insufficient evidence to hold him.

Also during Monday's parliamentary session Orban pushed through a hastily-drafted bill allowing the government to put a commissioner, Gyorgy Bakondi, in control of MAL. President Pal Schmitt, installed by Orban's Fidesz government in August, rubber-stamped the law within hours. But lawyers are concerned it is unconstitutional and it is likely to face challenges in the Constitutional Court. The verdict is "unpredictable" according to Szabados, because, "We don’t know at the moment what political influence Fidesz has on it."

Szabados said MAL probably has political connections with past Hungarian governments, so Fidesz might not be the only party to receive criticism for lax oversight. According to the Hungarian tabloid Blikk, an engineer at the plant told police the company’s senior managers were aware of the risk of a breach for some time. It also notes that Arpad Bakonyi, before taking part-ownership of MAL in the mid-1990s, was the head of the environmental department at the industrial ministry, the communist forerunner of the current environment agency.

While such potential scandal plays quietly in the background, Fidesz is riding high.

"Just remember how George Bush's popularity was boosted by 9/11," said Szabados. The boost for Fidesz came on the back of a strong showing in the municipal elections held the day before the crisis began. Along with measures to tax banks, telecom, energy and retail sectors, it has been yet another way for Fidesz to show its readiness to get tough on business.

"They tell businessmen that the government, if it has to, will take measures against business without asking them about it," Toth-Czifra said.

The message is evidently music to the ears of a population reeling from an unforeseen financial crisis and now an environmental one. Locals were outraged when MAL suggested the plant would be ready to resume production soon. In comparison, the now government-controlled plant was scheduled to resume production Friday, securing hundreds of local jobs, and prompting scant attention.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/europe/101014/hungary-red-mud-toxic-waste