Lessons learnt 5 years after the Hungarian red mud disaster

The red mud case in the Hungary 5 year ago was one of the worst European environmental accidents causing 10 deaths and leaving hundreds injured and over 300 houses destroyed. It was the first „major case” where the Environmental Liability Directive 2004/35/EC (ELD) was applied. Our conference held on October 5th 2015 examined what lessons have been learnt from the accident and how European legislation and implementation could be further improved to ensure the prevention or best remediation of similar accidents.

In the opening we shortly spoke of our visit to Kolontár and Devecser with Ulrike Lunacek on 2nd of October and presented a video that you can watch here: https://youtu.be/QOT_f3fHz90

In the first session speakers described what exactly happened in Kolontár, Hungary and what the underlying reasons to the disaster were. Mr György Bakondi described the events in detail and outlined the actions taken by the relevant authorities firstly to stop the sludge reaching the natural waters and secondly to restore the damages caused by the red sludge as far as possible and thirdly to prevent further spills from the reservoir. Zoltán Ferencz researcher from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences detailed the social impacts of the crisis on the towns it affected. Furthermore, the recovery process following the disaster included several categories of damages: property damage, environmental damage, economic damage, and damages to the physical and mental health of the affected communities. Infrastructural repairs were done and financed by the Hungarian Relief Fund and contributed to new schools, health centres, and public spaces. However, more relief is still needed in the affected towns including local economic development, ongoing psychological assistance, air pollution control. Ferencz suggested that regular health screening, community development programmes and capacity building of local stakeholderswould be advisable steps to take to continue aid the towns in need. More than anything, he emphasized the necessity of clarifying responsibilities and ensuring increased transparency and communication between private donors and government relief efforts.

At the end of the first session Mr Gergely Simon held a presentation about the lack of proper risk assessment, the authorities’ failure to identify the instability of the dam and take action accordingly. Through frequent (geological) monitoring the catastrophe could have been prevented, however, the mining authority was not involved in the permitting either. Another grim fact he faced the audience with was that red mud was not classified as hazardous waste after 2002, easing requirements both for monitoring and waste disposal. Amongst additional causes of the disaster he mentioned the lack of mandatory financial security deposits, no proper information on the composition of the sludge, the site operator not fulfilling remediation obligations set in the privatisation contact and the lack of independent and strong Hungarian authorities. Had laws been interpreted and applied well or politics had been stronger and included environmental guarantees in the privatization contracts, the impact could have been not so severe. Finally, he drew the attention on other similar cases still unsolved and the consequences at a national level.

During the second session, Mr. Vito A. Buonsante gave a presentation reviewing the Environmental Liability Directive (ELD). The objective of the ELD is to establish a framework of environmental liability, to implement the polluter pays principle and to prevent and repair future environmental damage. He identified several problems with the directive, including its very limited scope (as set out in Annex III, failing to encompass fossil fuel infrastructure and many other activities covered in the Environmental Impact Assessment Directives), governance structure and vague and restrictive definitions of terms such as significant adverse effects and environmental damage. While recognizing that the ELD is positive because it creates a right to access justice for environmental issues, Buonsante also recommended that in order to improve, the scope of the ELD should be extended by phasing out exemptions and redefining environmental damage (to go beyong land, water and biodiversity aspects) and make operators of all occupational activities strictly liable for all environmental damage.

In Mr Simon’s second presentation he focused on the prevention of possible disasters in the future after Seveso III Directive was adopted in 2011. He stressed that red mud ponds are still not covered by the legistation and the objective of prevention cannot be fulfilled by the current legislation. Remaining gaps like the lack of requirement for compliance with Best Available Technologies and for elimination hazardous substances, introducing an adequate financial liability scheme, frequent and effective inspections, regular safety studies as well as transparency are to be solved.

Overall, the conference was informative and stimulating. While there was much reflection on the red mud disaster, there was also ample discussion of the future of environmental liability and conservation. Learning from the mistakes made before and after the red mud disaster and sharing ideas on how to improve future actions was the highlight of discussion.

You may find the presentations from the conference below.

Vito Buonsante Kolontar

Gergő Simon Kolontar Hungarian aspects

Gergő Simon Kolontar European aspects

Zoltan Ferencz Kolontar

This post is also available in: Hungarian