Hungary moves to seize company connected to red sludge spill

Hungarian police said Tuesday they were examining a photo taken months before the red sludge spill that shows leaking from the alumina refinery containment wall.

Bako Gabor/Interspect/AP
This photo taken in June 2010 by a Hungarian air photo company shows the dam of the reservoir in Kolontar, Hungary, with red stains that allegedly indicate red sludge leaking through – nearly four months before the wall broke on October 4. The image is part of a growing body of evidence that inspectors who gave the pit a clean bill of health may have missed obvious warning signs. Zoltan Bakonyi, the managing director of the alumina plant, has been taken into custody by police.

A week after a deadly torrent of caustic red sludge spilled from an alumina refinery and swept through several Hungarian villages, the Hungarian government's hands-on approach to the cleanup has won it some praise from locals and international experts. But its move to seize control of the company blamed for the disaster may be a step too far.

The Hungarian parliament passed a bill Monday to allow Prime Minister Viktor Orban's rightist government to take control of the assets of MAL, the aluminum company that owns the compromised reservoir.

The decision to take over the company, which may prove unconstitutional, comes as Hungary is investigating the cause of the spill and whether MAL, which has a 12 percent market share in Europe of alumina production and 4 percent globally, should be held accountable. Hungarian police said Tuesday they were examining an aerial photo taken months before the spill that shows a faint red trail trickling through the wall of the refinery's reservoir.

On Monday, Hungary arrested the company's managing director, Zoltan Bakonyi. Mr. Bakonyi drew public ire by telling a journalist that the spill wouldn't hurt the company's revenues too badly and by telling another reporter that the sludge, a byproduct from alumina processing, was not toxic, but people "should not bathe in it."

"The company was not prepared at all for such a crisis. The way they communicated with the public was outrageous," says Krisztian Szabados, a political analyst from the think tank Political Capital.

But some Hungarian constitutional lawyers say the state is going too far in trying to appropriate private property.

It is "unpredictable" whether the Constitutional Court will approve the law, says Mr. Szabado, "because we don’t know yet what political influence Mr. Orban's party has on it." The rightist Fidesz party, lead by Prime Minister Orban, was elected by a landslide in April this year.

While the government is putting more pressure on MAL, theories over the cause of the disaster have gone little beyond speculation at this point. Many wonder how the company received clean safety inspections just weeks before its reservoir ruptured.

A police statement issued Tuesday suggested that Bakonyi was guilty of negligence, saying he did not prepare an emergency warning and rescue plan that could be implemented in case of an incident like the sludge spill.

There was no official information on what Bakonyi told police, with law enforcement officials declining to divulge details on the progress of their investigation a week after the start of their probe.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.