Hazardous waste deposit at the red sludge reservoirs in Almásfüzitő was issued a new permit

After several years of waiting, a new environmental permit was granted in December 2019  to Tatai Environmental Protection Ltd. (TKV)’s hazardous waste processing plant at the Almásfüzitő red mud reservoirs. According to our sources the company’s current owner is in talks with Viktor Orbán’s childhood friend Lőrinc Mészáros about the potential acquisition of the company which has an annual turnover of over 6 million euros. The reservoirs of the former alumina factory, located right next to the Danube, received much attention after the 2010 red mud disaster in Western Hungary, when ten people died and 150 people were injured as a result of the Ajka alumina plant accident. Greenpeace has protested and campaigned on several occasions since then because they believe the reservoirs are likely to leak into the Danube. The organization has appealed to the authorities  after  the new permit was issued. In 2012 an EU infringement procedure was started against Hungary because of the Almásfüzitő reservoirs, though  without any significant consequences so far.

The solid red sludge stored in the Almásfüzitő reservoirs was a by-product of the operation of the alumina plant which operated there until 1997.  The  8 “sludge storage cassettes” cover a total of 172 hectares, and Greenpeace estimates that altogether 17 million tonnes of red sludge is stored in the area. Reservoir No VII is only separated from the river Danube by the raised riverbank. The organizasion cites a series of scientific sources on how the contents of the reservoirs can harm the environment and the health of locals. While the release of solid red sludge into the air as dust was the most urgent problem earlier, Greenpeace claims that toxic and heavy metals, as well organic materials (which are hard to, or impossible to decompose) contained by the waste diluted and deposited there present a source of danger without an adequate insulation of the reservoirs. Some studies showed that the reservoirs can leak red mud into the Danube through groundwater and thus can  endanger the Natura 2000 protected area.

Hazardous waste deposited in red sludge reservoirs

„We are replacing an existing risk by another” – claimed a staff member of Tatai Környezetvédelmi Zrt. (TKV Zrt.) 15 years ago in a lecture to university students about a technology used in „fixing” one of Hungary ‘s alumina production waste sludge reservoirs (at Almásfüzitő) according to a document published by Atlatszo.hu.

Negligence, an earthquake or major flooding are listed by activists as potential risks, and when  Greenpeace previously tested samples from the embankment, they found that the amount of arsenic and molybdenum (typical contaminants of red mud)  was many times higher then the limit. The concentration of toxic arsenic was 324 mg/kg instead of the acceptable 15 mg/kg.

Environmentalists pointed out that toxic and heavy metals are also listed in higher concentrations in the company’s official permit (both in the old one issued in 2010 and the new one granted in December 2019), so they question the fact that actual  composting is done by the company. TKV on the other hand, claims that the substances listed in the license have been tested and approved by the authorities. The company acknowledges that there are heavy metals in the materials they receive and in the end product of their processing, but they believe that these are not harmful and may even be needed by living organisms in sufficient proportions. They emphasize that bromine, arsenic and chromium are also components of  enzymes, and that the acceptable amounts for these were set by the environmental authority and TKV complies with these values. The company also argues that they do waste treatment and composting according to the regulations, and they transform hazardous materials into artificial soil that does not harm the environment, and this is what their permit allows them to do. The  scientific opinions published on the company’s website serve to support TKV’s statements.

We would have liked to look at the work currently done at the Almásfüzitő reservoirs, but the company did not respond when Átlátszó asked for this in an email sent in September 2019. Finally, in December we decided to try and get some information from outside the plant with the help of a drone.

Megújították a Mészáros cégcsoport által kinézett almásfüzitői hulladéklerakó engedélyét from atlatszo.hu on Vimeo.

TKV did not answer our questions sent in January either. Among other things, we wanted to find out what the cause of the reddish discolouration was on the path between one of the reservoirs and the Danube. Later TKV replied to questions sent by researchers working together with Átlátszó in a scientific project. One of the questions was about how it is possible that, as seen in the drone video, there is still a smaller section in Reservoir VII, where red mud is uncovered. Greenpeace claims that if the company had wanted to finish the covering, they would have been able to do so in 33 years. According to TKV, the work was not finished because there is not always enough covering materials available, and because industrial waste has been reduced in recent years due to stricter environmental regulations and the modernisation of production technologies. Coverage of the remaining part of the reservoir is promised to be done by the early 2020s.

Composting or depositing?

According to environmentalists, the above delay suggests that covering the remaining section is just a good excuse for a further extension of the landfill permit, mainly because TKV claims a second layer of soil is needed on the already covered parts. They explain this by the fact that in the early 2000s they had to do the covering in a rush due to the danger of the red mud dusting, and there was not enough materials available  to cover the reservoirs properly,  so a thicker coating is required to stop erosion. According to Greenpeace, however, there are many effective technologies – such as geotextiles for example – to cover such areas more effectively.

According to Pálma Paróczy, communication officer at TKV, it is not true that the company does not carry out waste treatment or composting, but simply dilutes and deposits the incoming hazardous and general waste:

“The recultivation work we carry out at our holding pond is waste recovery. By using biological treatment we create an artificial cover layer that contains the most important components of natural soil and is suitable for agricultural use. This is an internationally accepted and used technology that has been thoroughly examined and accepted by the scientists. The processed wastes become natural components again through appropriate treatment and controlled biological and chemical processes. The waste we use is degraded to the same materials that are found in natural soil. This technology is a widespread solution used by both domestic and international companies. The Government Office has stated that the processing used by Tatai Environmental Protection Co. is the best available technology of its kind.”

The company ordered the above mentioned tests to be done by – as the company stresses – internationally recognised experts in 2014-2015. The results of these were summed up in a thousand-page study by the participating companies, universities, and research institutes. According to TKV, this research proves that the hazardous waste shipped to them loses its hazardous properties during the processing done by the company, and that they actually improve the local environment. According to the company, Greenpeace – as a client involved in the licensing process – did not dispute the above study.

According to Greenpeace,  compared to the previous licence the new permit limits to some extent the accepted levels of hazardous substances in the “product” made from hazardous and non-hazardous waste. Yet the organisation still has serious concerns because the limit values ​​for general soil are significantly exceeded, and the limit values ​​for wastewater compost can in many cases be significantly exceeded by the  material used for covering the reservoirs.

The product is considered by TKV to be composted topsoil, while Greenpeace claims it is simply a hazardous mixture of toxic ingredients, posing long-term risks to groundwater. Therefore the organisation appealed against the new permit to the Komárom-Esztergom County Government Office in Tatabánya, claiming that the company is still  doing waste disposal and not  recovery, and that the result of this activity could not be called a product.

According to Greenpeace, TKV should not be allowed to take in hazardous wastes containing significant amounts of heavy metals and other toxic substances, and  the standard output value set for  sewage compost should be applied to the technology used at Almásfüzitő. In its appeal Greenpeace  questions the validity of the new license issued  for TKV with reference to the 2012 Waste Act. According to this law, recovery is:

‘Any treatment resulting in transforming waste into useful material to be used instead of other materials that would otherwise have been used to fulfil a specific function, or as a  result of which the waste is treated in a way that it can fulfil this function.”

Greenpeace’s main complaint is that the production of cover materials would not require the use of non-biodegradable hazardous waste at all, so for them it is incomprehensible why the authority permits the shipment of such materials to the facility at all. According to the activists the dilution-deposition method used at the Almásfüzitő site makes handling of hazardous waste very lucrative for the company, because otherwise – due to the strict regulations – the building of new hazardous waste processing plants is very expensive.

In  their appeal against the new permit the environmental organisation stresses that their concerns were supported by the first-instance authority’s decisions on the company’s previous permit review request. For example the fact that the concentration of heavy metals is reduced as a result of the dilution with non-hazardous waste, but the total amount of these materials remains the same on the site.

Greenpeace says TKV’s new environmental permit approves values multiple times higher than the generally allowed levels for hazardous substances. Gergely Simon, Regional Toxic Expert at Greenpeace Hungary, said in an interview to Átlátszó that he does not understand why the toxic content can be so high  in the final material of TKV’s Almásfüzitő plant, why the authority allows the same amount of contaminants in this “artificial soil” which – according to the company has gone through composting – as they would for  uncomposted wastewater.  According to Simon, after the treatment at Almásfüzitő the materials should have the same amount of hazardous components as soil or, in the worst case, as composed waste water.

For example, the permitted concentration of arsenic in the new ‘product’ is 50 micrograms per cubic meter in the new license, compared to 75 in the old license, although the standard is 10 micrograms for soil. The permitted amount of mercury was 10 micrograms in the previous licence, now it is 5 – as opposed to 0.5 micrograms per cubic meter for soil in general. The organic oil content may be 4,000 micrograms in the material to be used for covering the reservoir in Almásfüzitő, while 100 micrograms is generally permitted in soil. The level of lead has been reduced from 750 to 500 micrograms in the new permit. According to Greenpeace, it would be reasonable to include a limit on particularly problematic halogenated hydrocarbons which can cause serious problems, both in the materials taken in by the company and the finished “product”.

Carcinogenic soil and groundwater contamination at hazardous levels in Hidas and Garé

Now bankrupt chemical manufacturer company Budapesti Vegyiművek (Budapest Chemical Works, BCW) has been producing and packaging pesticides and insecticides since the 1960s in Hidas, Baranya County. Chlorobenzene derivatives were generated as a waste by-product from the manufacturing process, the hazardous waste was stored in 200-liter metal barrels near the factory.

In their  appeal, Greenpeace proposes further investigations they consider necessary for the reservoirs, such as checking the leakage and evaporation of the deposited material, citing that locals living directly next to Reservoir VII in the “lower” area of Almásfüzitő often complain of bad odours.

According to the company there are many other factories in Almásfüzitő, the unpleasant odor may even come from them, and to be able to respond properly to the odour reported by the locals, they would need to know exactly when and where it was detected. TKV claims that when such a complaint was made in the past they always investigated it, and they never found that the source of the unpleasant odour was their own establishment.

“We never concealed that our technology also uses waste water sludge in some cases, and to a limited extent some odour may escape from our site, but the placement of our technology, as well as the design and other barriers can ensure that this phenomenon may only appear as a minor issue affecting a narrow strip of land far from residential zones. Such issues are also subject to precise regulations and the competent authorities are periodically monitoring them.”

Yearly inspections by the authorities

We wanted to know what and how often the authorities inspect, so we contacted them to find out when the company’s activities, methods and the water of the Danube, and the area surrounding the site were last checked in 2019, and what tests were carried out and what were the results of these.

So far, the Pest County Government Office and the Mining Authority have not responded to our information request. The National Disaster Management Directorate of the Ministry of the Interior, acting as a second instance authority for the new permit, responded to our previous letter before issuing the new license in December:

“Reservoirs I-VI. are covered and dust free and have a licence to operate. The procedure is underway for a new permit for Reservoir VII where the recovery of toxic and general waste is done. The National Directorate General for Disaster Management (OKF) acts as a secondary authority for water and water protection issues. Reservoir VII is an “upper-tier establishment” handling hazardous materials. The plant is under the constant supervision of the Komárom-Esztergom County Disaster Management Directorate as an industrial safety authority. The operator received a safety permit on 2 August last year (2018), the last inspection was held on 21 February this year (2019), no malfunction was detected. ”

After TKV received a new license in December 2019, we contacted  OKF again and learned that the upper tier hazardous substances plants were inspected annually by the industrial safety authority and that the Almásfüzitő site had not been inspected since February last year.

The impact of politics on environmental issues

One of our sources – asking for anonymity because of his earlier positions –,  has had extensive experience in environmental cases in Hungary and is familiar with the activities of TKV, agrees with Greenpeace and doubts that actual composting would be done at the Almásfüzitő site.

According to this source, the use of the term “composting” in relation to this site is only possible because the EU does not, at the level of legal terminology, define exactly what this term covers. He is concerned that if someone “close” to the current government should become the owner of the Almásfüzitő plant, the authorities would be even more reluctant to control it or interfere with anything. He believes that the solution for the Almásfüzitő reservoirs would be to dig them out and deposit their content in a safely insulated place, to prevent hundreds of thousands of tons of hazardous and general waste from leaking into the river Danube.

According to several sources, the case of the Almásfüzitő reservoirs illustrates the shortcomings in the central environmental management and monitoring in Hungary. Many of the interviewed experts pointed out, that environmental licensing decisions are often made in Hungary with a political bias,  because these enterprises represent serious economic interests.

In addition, it is often difficult to obtain official information on such matters, and not only for journalists: for example, Erzsébet Schmuck, Chairperson of the Committee on Sustainable Development in Parliament, has so far received no response from the authorities on which company caused the pollution at the Mátra Power Plant (Mátrai Erőmű) in  July 2019.

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 Mészáros Group is looking for opportunities

Átlátszó has been informed from several sources that Lőrinc Mészáros’s group of companies is in talks with TKV about a possible acquisition of the company. We asked Mészáros és Mészáros Kft. about this: in their answer they stated that this company is not the owner of any of the companies owning the Almásfüzitő reservoirs (Tatai Környezetési Zrt., Revireo Invest Zrt., Envirotis Zrt., Greenermark Zrt.). At the same time they did not deny that a possible acquisition is being discussed.

“Generally speaking, the Mészáros Group is constantly looking for new acquisitions and  we will inform the public through the press about the outcome of each negotiation.”

The Almásfüzitő case is further complicated by an ongoing infringement procedure against Hungary because of  these reservoirs. In  2015 the Commission sent a so-called “ reasoned opinion” to the Hungarian government. According to our source Brussels is keeping a close eye on the Almásfüzitő case and that the Commission is hoping to get it resolved by the new permit which was still pending at the time when we got this information.

In the above mentioned reasoned opinion in 2015 the Commission called on Hungary to apply stricter environmental standards in respect of the Almásfüzitő red mud reservoirs. A thorough examination revealed that certain rehabilitation activities in the area were carried out incorrectly, with consequences for human health and the environment. In contravention of the EU waste management legislation, hazardous waste was mixed with other waste and the impact study required by the Habitats Directive was not prepared.

In its response to a letter of formal notice sent in 2013, Hungary indicated that a review of practices in the area had begun, but that the process had not yet been completed. As the activities in Almásfüzitő continued during the permit review process, the Commission considered that Hungary had not yet taken the necessary steps to put an end to the illegal activity. Should Hungary fail to comply with this obligation, the Commission may take the matter to the Court of Justice of the European Union.

According to TKV, the reason for the infringement procedure is that when it was launched, Hungary had not yet adopted the EU regulations (Habitats Directive),  and they stress that the company was always operating in compliance with the applicable Hungarian laws and regulations. The new environmental permit was issued under an EU-compatible Hungarian law, and in 2018 experts from Brussels visited the Almásfüzitő plant.

Written and translated by Gabriella Horn. You can read the Hungarian version of this story here.

This article is the result of the cooperation of academic researchers and journalists in a project (Black Waters) at the Center for Media, Data and Society within CEU’s School of Public Policy. The aim of this project – supported by the Open Society Initiative for Europe – was to produce articles calling the attention to environmental problems, corruption and the social consequences of these. Participants: Alexandra Czeglédi  Research Assistant, Anthropoligist, Ian M. Cook and Márta Vetier Márta Researchers  (CEU). Video: Dániel Németh