Toxic gases released at Mátra Power Plant, locals blame Lőrinc Mészáros’s starch factory

Hydrogen sulfide and nitrogen monoxide have been found in concentrations above the health limit and phosphine has also been detected in gas leakages at the Mátra Power Plant in Visonta, Hungary last week. The source of the pollution is the tecnological water taken from the Őzse Valley water reservoir, a problem that has never been experienced before during the last half century of the operation of the thermal power plant. However, in February this year, a huge wheat processor and starch factory was started up on site next to the power plant, which discharges its industrial wastewater into the same water reservoir. Detected gases refer to anaerobic decomposition of large amounts of organic matter, which according to our local sources could only originate from the starch factory.

Strong smell of gas was developing at the Mátra Power Plant, and several workers became ill – Hungarian news outlets reported last week. The situation continued to deteriorate by Friday, with many returning home from work, complaining of respiratory problems, diarrhea, headaches and nausea. Heves County Disaster Management Authority reassured the public in multiple announcements last week, stressing that the mysterious gas smells strong but is “not dangerous to humans”.

According to local sources and an internal document leaked to Atlatszo, the source of the pollution is the technological water taken by the power plant from the Őzse Valley reservoir. The gas contamination was first detected in the technological water intake building, later spread to the facility, with workers reporting strong smells, throat and eye irritation, headaches, and discoloration of their metal objects.

Mátra Power Plant’s gas analyzers detected dangerous concentrations of hydrogen sulfide and nitrogen monoxide, and the Heves County Disaster Management Authority’s mobile laboratory identified phosphine contamination as well.

Contrary to the Heves County Disaster Management Authority’s claims, all three gases detected at the power plant are extremely toxic and, depending on their concentration, can cause serious damage to health or even death.

According to the internal announcement (PDF) issued by the safety department of Mátra Power Plant Ltd. on 13 November, “there is no possibility to remove the contaminated water from the technology, therefore various technical solutions had to be used to remove the contaminating gas from the area. Personal protective equipment had to be handed over to workers in order to protect the health of those who are working there.”

To protect workers’ health, the Disaster Management Authority closed the pump house’s area and forbid access to the Őzse Valley water reservoir. As the gases detected are highly flammable, open flames and smoking are also prohibited, and workers are obliged to wear breathing apparatus in contaminated areas.

According to last week’s announcements by the Disaster Management Authority, sulphurous and phosphorus gases have evolved “most likely due to the decomposition of organic matter in the technological water reservoir”. Hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen monoxide and phosphine are indeed formed when large amounts of organic matter are decomposing in an oxygen deficient environment, such as in swamps.

Local sources familiar with the matter told Atlatszo reporters that organic contamination from the Mátra Power Plant to the technological water reservoir is highly unlikely, and they have never experienced such a phenomenon during the last half century of operation of the thermal power plant. However, in February this year, a huge wheat processor and starch factory started operating at the Visonta site of the power plant.

The former Visonta Projekt Ltd., now known as Viresol Ltd., was built on 14 hectares directly next to the Mátra Power Plant and is capable of processing 250 thousand tons of wheat annually. The factory’s treated industrial wastewater and rainwater is discharged to the Őzse Valley water reservoir, from which the thermal power plant receives the technological water that made its workers ill last week.

This reservoir is causing other problems as well since the starch factory was started up: in July, heavy pollution and fishkill occurred in the nearby Bene stream and on the Tarna river. Official analysis of the disaster revealed that “fish kills are not caused by chemical substances, but most likely the watercourses became oxygen defficient due to organic matter contamination”.

In response to a written request by a member of the Hungarian Parliament, Interior Minister Sándor Pintér stated that “according to the findings made after the official visit, the pollution originates from the territory of Mátra Power Plant Ltd., from the Őzse Valley water reservoir. Viresol Ltd., also involved in the case, discharges its industrial waste water and the rainwater collected at its site into this reservoir.”

“Due to the water pollution determined on the basis of the sampling results, the Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County Disaster Management Directorate initiated a water protection procedure, while the Heves County Government Office in Eger ordered Viresol Ltd. to remove the waste immediately. Authorities took measures to mitigate the damage and prevent further damage” – the Interior Minister wrote in a statement in August.

Mérgező gázok bűzlenek a Mátrai Erőműben, Mészáros Lőrinc keményítőgyárát okolják from atlatszo.hu on Vimeo.

The contaminated Őzse Valley water reservoir is shared by two companies with the same owner: Mátra Power Plant Ltd. and Viresol Ltd. are both owned by Opus Global Plc. controlled by Felcsút billionaire Lőrinc Mészáros. We asked both companies involved in the case to confirm or refute that the environmental pollution was caused by organic waste discharged by Viresol Ltd., but none of them responded to our inquiry. We filed a FOI request to the Heves County Disaster Management Authority for measurement reports on the gas pollution examined at the Mátra Power Plant, and are awaiting their response.

Written by Tamás Bodoky, video by Gergely Pápai. You can read the more detailed Hungarian version of this article here