Environmentalists have warned of a new industrial accident in Hungary that they say could once again threaten villages, towns and even Budapest with toxic red sludge. Just outside the Hungarian capital, a reservoir is being watched which has potentially similar problems as the one that collapsed in western Hungary in early October, killing at least nine people and injuring over 120 others.
Almasfuzito means something like apple trees. But romance seems to have disappeared from the village with this name.
Devastation after factory closure
Next to the main road, this correspondent walks through a partly windowless former alumina plant accompanied by anxious officials. The factory, once the pride of communist Eastern Europe, was forced to close in the 1990s amid market reforms. More than one thousand people lost their jobs.
The factory, once the pride of communist Eastern Europe, was forced to close in the 1990s amid market reforms. More than one thousand people lost their jobs.
The plant left behind a gigantic decrepit reservoir complex filled with toxic red sludge,a byproduct of the conversion of bauxite for use in aluminum production. Seven pools hold 12 million tonnes of the hazardous waste produced since 1945, more than than 10 times the amount of Hungary's deadly toxic spill on October 4th.
In that accident the collapse of a reservoir of a metals plant near the western village of Kolontar, caused a catastrophe. Some 800.000 cubic meters of red sludge flooded towns and villages, contaminating an area of some 40 square kilometers.
There are now concerns that a similar accident will occur in Almasfuzito. Even the facility's manager Sandor Pirik, admits there are dangers.
Pirik explains that earthquakes can happen in the area where the former plant is located. He says, "We don't know how the reservoir will behave in such a situation." Another problem is frequent flooding from the nearby Danube river, but he says his workers constantly monitor the reservoir
Environmental groups say an accident could spark trouble for drinking water supplies in nearby Slovakia and even Budapest, about 80 kilometers away.
The reservoir is located some 50 meters from the river Danube, one of Europe's main waterways. On several occasions the flooding Danube already reached the dam of the reservoir.
A private company, Tata's Environment Protection, is now in charge. It covers the reservoir, at least in part, with treated industrial waste, a profitable business. Yet Environmental Director Bela Farkas says he isn't worried.
Farkas jumps on the sludge, which looks like a red martian landscape. He says "At the plant where disaster struck, the sludge was liquid. Here that's not the case." He adds his workers have covered most of the reservoir, "while the plant in Ajka, near Kolontar, didn't even start to do that."
But downstream in Budapest, the World Wildlife Fund is not convinced. The acting director of its Hungarian branch Gabor Figeczky warns that a possible major accident at the plant in Almasfuzito might happen similar to the one near Kolontar.
"We can all be concerned that there might be another accident similar to this one," Figeczky says, "Because we don't know how stable these reservoirs are. We didn't know how stable this reservoir was in Kolontar. We don't have any information if there are regular checks in Almasfuzito done by the company or the authorities."
Drinking supplies at risk
He says people in Almasfuzito have already complained about leakage. Figeczky adds that drinking water supplies are at risk, due to the outdated technology used to build the reservoir so close to the Danube river.
"In case of a flood the water from the Danube simply flows into the reservoir. The other major thing is that if there is a leakage from the reservoir then this red mud gets directly to the Danube. And if this red mud is still as alkaline as it was in the case of Kolontar, it will surely kill lots of the fish and lots of the wildlife in the Danube and also it will threaten the drinking water supply from the Danube," Figeczky said.
But not all people in Almasfuzito want to think about the dangers of living near the reservoir, where workers are busy trying to cover the sludge.
Standing near the red mud on a windy afternoon, Mayor Lukacs Karansebesy says he has fond memories about his time at the alumina factory.
He explains that he was very sad when the facility was closed in 1997 as he grew up with the idea that this was the biggest alumina plant in Eastern Europe.
The mayor says he could not imagine that this would all be over. "The plant meant security for people." He says his family worked at the plant. Its closure, he adds, "was a shock" for him and all the villagers of whom he is now the mayor.
An uncertain future
Villagers face an uncertain future as it remains unclear whether they'll be able to sell the produce from their farms amid concerns about the contamination of their lands and drinking water supplies.
Almasfuzito is not the only place where the legacy of communist industrial policies come to light. The European Union and others have identified several hazardous chemical industries in the region and in the Balkans too.
After the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, investors rushed to privatize state industries in Hungary and neighboring countries, but experts say the desire for quick profits have sidelined environmental considerations.
A study on toxic industrial zones in the region by the International Commission to protect the Danube River named nearly 100 contaminated sites, most of them in Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.