Environmental disaster in Hungary: When the Blue Danube Waltz turns into a Danse Macabre

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The toxic red sludge coming from the bauxite-aluminium plant close to the village of Aika[1], fouling the Danube and flooding the neighbouring water courses and the villages of Devecser and Kolontar (the worst affected), can only generate a feeling of dread. It is the most serious incident of pollution in Hungary’s history! Thousands of cubic metres of poisoned sludge have been released into the environment and the repeated televised pictures of a bucket attached to a rope being thrown into it every hour to take samples for chemical analysis only added to the feelings of unease.

However, beyond the spectacular images of the desolated countryside in the first televised reports, another reality, just as shocking but much less reported on, is evident outside of the official comments: the deaths this has already caused. The horror generated by the dozens of immediate victims (including a 14-month old girl), the people gone missing, the more than a hundred wounded, affected by serious injuries, is added to today by the many who are still undergoing real suffering. This corrosive red sludge, composed of heavy metals and mildly radioactive, induces deep burns and attacks the eyes. The chemical component of this infamous mixture turns out to be carcinogenic. Thousands of villagers have decided to flee their homes in order to avoid putting their health in peril.

All the human drama of this catastrophe has been intentionally drowned out in the few commentaries that journalists have given. As usual, the dominant class has minimised the disaster: “The risk of the pollution of the Danube by the toxic red mud has been eliminated”. This is the lamentable announcement of the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban during a press conference in Sofia only a few days after the incident. Without turning a hair, he added that: “The Hungarian authorities are in control of the situation”[2]. At the same time, journalists were turning attention and reflection away from the tragic consequences of this incident, showing just spectacular images to frighten the population and thus avoiding any real explanation[3]. In any case, industrial accidents linked to “technological risks”[4] are “the price to pay”, the “inevitable price of progress”. In other words, the fact that there are victims must be accepted as a fatality. This is something “normal”!

We can only angrily and indignantly denounce this nauseous ideology and above all the attempt to hide what are effectively murders by an unscrupulous capitalist class. We can only firmly highlight the barbarity that obliges populations to live in a dangerous environment and then coldly displaces the villagers after the event as if they were battery hens, whereas they had been deliberately exposed to danger with a total contempt for their lives.

It was a long time ago that the seepage of the red sludge coming from the defective reservoir was discovered and that the risks of direct contamination of the neighbouring villages were known. The exposure of the population was an open secret among the local bosses and politicians! But because prevention is not a profitable activity, the bourgeoisie prefers to make economies and play Russian roulette with a part of the population. And they are still playing the same game!

The “experts”, the politicians, bosses and journalists know perfectly well that the industrial rim of the Danube is a gigantic open-air rubbish tip and that the unsafe, decrepit installations – due to lack of investment – along it, can only give rise to new, similar catastrophes. From the first seepages, they have done everything to minimise the impact of the disaster. Then, faced with the evidence, they have affected surprise at the conditions of this new catastrophe, pointing a finger at the past, “vestiges” inherited from the period of so-called “communism” in order to absolve their system and avoid responsibility[5].

If today the media has gone onto other things, if the event no longer makes the newspapers, the catastrophe and the sufferings are from finished!

This devastating event is neither natural nor the product of fate. It is a clear expression of the destructive madness generated by the frenetic search for profits. Exacerbated competition in a world where markets are reducing little by little obliges all industries and states to take more and more risks, to constantly cut back on safety measures in order to make economies. At the same time, natural resources are everywhere subject to a real pillage and are suffering accelerated destruction. The catastrophe in Hungary is already there. Not only is the Danube, the second-largest river in Europe polluted, but some water courses belonging to its hydrographical network have had their ecosystems completely destroyed. This is the case for the river Marcel (which flows into the Raab, a direct tributary of the Danube) where inert fish float on top of the rusty coloured water. It will be a long time, decades even, before life can return here; this is without counting the damage produced in all the surrounding land and in the percolating water and streams that eventually end up in the water table. More than a thousand contaminated hectares will henceforth affect agricultural activity and the food chain of this polluted space. In the long term what are the consequences of the dust from the dried-up sludge, because it turns out that as long as it stays liquid it is less dangerous?

Once again, the bourgeoisie displays its negligence and total contempt for human life. And not only is its instinct driven by its thirst for immediate profits, but its blindness is such that bit by bit it is sawing away at the branch on which it sits. Of course some bourgeois call on the rest of their class to slow down this collapse into catastrophe, but it’s a lost cause. The general logic of capitalism’s hunt for rapid profits, linked to the present decline of the economy as a whole and to the collapse of whole segments of it, can only sharpen the rapaciousness of industry and the financial sector as they seek to suck the marrow dry of those areas of the planet where a profit can still be made. In exploiting the proletariat worse than beasts the bosses turn their noses up at “too costly” safety measures. So they are doing away with them without reflecting for one second on the consequences for the rest of humanity.

WH (14th October)



[1] 160 kilometres west of the capital Budapest.

[2] http://frenchruvr.ru/2010/10/08/24883382.html

[3] Let us remember, among other things, the silence orchestrated not so long ago over the 11 deaths following the explosion on the Gulf of Mexico oil platform. The repeated images of this spectacular explosion were accompanied by comments that systematically refused to talk of the victims (see RI no. 413, June 2010).

[4] In French schools’ current geography lessons, there’s a programme of study called “technological risks”. It’s a way of getting the young to accept the fact that urban populations are more and more exposed to catastrophes.

[5] In France, at Gardanne (Bouches-du-Rhone), the problems posed by some of this mud flow in liquid form has been sorted out in advance: it has largely been diverted and dumped into the Mediterranean!