In Hungary, environmental protection is crippled so as not to hinder economic development
There are only four countries in the world that do not have an independent Ministry of the Environment: Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tanzania, Hungary – stated Tímea Szabó, the leader of the Parliamentary faction of Párbeszéd Magyarország, one of the opposition parties, in the debate of the proposed climate emergency law. The MP also stressed that this illustrates well the importance of environmental protection in the government’s program. Today, there is no national environmental authority in Hungary, and in 2012, the powers and institutional background of the Environmental Ombudsman were significantly reduced. Such cases are dealt with by government offices, the Ministry of the Interior, the national disaster management authority and the Ministry of Agriculture, and it is often not clear to local residents or even a municipality where they should turn to in an emergency. Yet rapid action would be needed when a protected area is threatened or damaged, or when trees are cut without a permit. Atlatszo has reported on a number of such cases which also show that often there is a delay in the handling of these incidents due to clumsiness, chaos in the administration, or corruption.
In the last months we reported on how an industrial amount of organic material entered the technological water reservoir of the Mátra Power Plant in Őzse-völgy. It was revealed that it came from the starch factory of Viresol Kft., a company owned by Lőrinc Mészáros, one of Hungary’s richest businessmen and a childhood friend of the Prime Minister. Although as a result of the pollution and the gas leaks many people working in the power plant became unwell, the authorities did not publicly name those responsible for the incident. Only a leaked document revealed that Viresol Kft. was banned from the use of the water reservoir and the authorities obliged the company to introduce technical modifications in order to prevent further damage to the environment.
The disaster management authority imposed a fine of five million forints for the two incidents of pollution in the Őzse-völgy reservoir last year, but the penalty was given to the now state owned Mátrai Erőmű Zrt., not the perpetrator. In addition, the case was not free from procedural oddities, and according to experts in environmental matters, such a “jam” is not uncommon in the Hungarian practice of dealing with similar cases.
Visonta-based Viresol filed a lawsuit against Atlatszo when we first reported about their pollution in November, which caused toxic gas leakages at the Mátra Power Plant, where several workers became ill.
As part of a joint project with researchers from CEU we wrote about the case of the red mud reservoirs used as a landfill at the former alumina plant in Almásfüzitő. After several years of waiting, the company operating the plant, Tatai Környezetvédelmi Zrt. had its environmental licence renewed temporarily in December 2019. This happened despite the fact that the European Commission had previously initiated an infringement procedure against Hungary because of the case, and environmentalists have been protesting for years about TKV referring to the method they are using as “composting”. Activists stress that the hazardous materials the company also “treats” are indestructible this way.
The site, which has since been purchased by one of Lőrinc Mészáros’s companies, received another long-term permit in early May. Environmentalists claim that the new licence prescribes stricter conditions for the operation of TKV than before and this is better for the environment.
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.
However, according to Greenpeace, the question is whether the authorities will make sure the company complies with the new, stricter regulations concerning the content of hazardous substances in the materials shipped there. In addition, the inadequately insulated reservoir, separated from the river only by a dam, still poses a huge ecological risk, as pollutants can enter the Danube directly if the reservoir is damaged.
According to Greenpeace, a long-term reassuring solution to such cases could be the introduction of the “polluter pays” principle and the enactment of environmental liability.
The most serious environmental disaster in Hungary in the last decade was also caused by red mud, although not solid as in Almásfüzitő, but in liquid form. Ten people were killed and an enormous natural and economic damage was done between Kolontár and Ajka on 4 October 2010, when the dam of one of the reservoirs at the MAL Magyar Alumínium Termelő és Kereskedelmi Zrt. collapsed. The court case about the accident finished nine years later, and during this time several irregularities in the field of environmental regulation, control, licensing and case management came to the fore.
Environmental experts, non-governmental organizations and local activists claim, that although there are some good examples, the management of environmental issues has not changed much in Hungary since the Kolontár disaster.
Experts say that it was not a good solution to move environmental authorities to the county government offices because these agencies cannot operate as independent, professional organizations. In addition, from March this year, it is not possible to appeal to the government offices in environmental matters anymore, the only option left is going to court, because in such cases the county government offices have become first-instance authorities and there is no second-instance authority anymore.
In the debate on the proposed bill on declaring a climate emergency, the above-mentioned Member of Parliament for Párbeszéd Magyarországért stated that
“environmental protection has been eliminated as an obstacle to faster economic development”
Tímea Szabó supported this statement with several examples: the Samsung project in Göd, also reported on by Atlatszo, and the case of Sümegprága in Veszprém County, where the government granted a permit for establishing a basalt mine in a Natura 2000 protected area.
The battery factory owned by Samsung is expanding in Göd, a suburb of Budapest North of the Hungarian capital. The municipality of Göd offered an 80-hectare industrial area for development last year, and the winner has just been announced: Samsung will use the area to expand the current battery factory.
“A misunderstood economic interest and corruption interferes in some decisions in environmental matters. A rational decision-making system that prioritises environmental protection would certainly not allow, for example, deforestation or investments that clearly damage Natura 2000 protected areas” – concluded dr. Csaba Kiss, lawyer, director of the Environmental Management and Law Association.
The lack of an independent environmental authority and ministry is a problem, but with a well-functioning government structure, it would not necessarily be an issue in itself. If the Minister of the Environment is not a strong enough character, he may not be able to do much for the environment anyway, though he could at least attend government meetings and have legislative powers. The fact that environmental protection in Hungary today partly belongs to the Ministry of Agriculture is not the worst solution, but in cases where the issue of environmental protection is in conflict with the agricultural interest, the outcome of the case can be guessed, Csaba Kiss lists the problems.
Brutal destruction of a protected natural area is taking place outside the town of Budakeszi according to local activists who have launched a petition and are organising a protest. Construction works have recently started in Álomvölgy (Dream Valley) which is home to protected animal and plant species, and is a listed, „Natura 2000″ site.
The fact that there have been no new environmental laws for years is a bigger problem, the 2012 Waste Act is the last piece of legislation put together by the Ministry of the Environment, which has since been abolished. A climate law may be passed, but there is a chance that it will be a version without significant effects. Among other things, the Hungarian environmental protection system lacks a support fund that can be used when environmental damage is done, and the financing disproportions in the area are well known.
While a total of 70 million forints goes to the entire environmental civil sector in one year, the environmental foundation founded by President János Áder received a 5 billion forint grant from the state.
A national environmental fund would be needed to deal with the situation immediately after an incident, and the responsible company, person would be searched for only after that. Currently they investigate the responsibility first, and while this is being done the polluting material may be left to “rot” on the location for years.
Tens of thousands of cubic meters of possibly hazardous construction waste were deposited near lake Velence almost a decade ago. Despite an order by local environmental authorities, the local municipality cleaned it up only in 2015.
“Although the Hungarian National Asset Management Inc. already has a remediation fund, the National Environmental Remediation Program, I suspect it is not large enough, and it does not represent a level of responsibility anyway. There is a kind of liability vacuum because the law does not say that the ultimate responsibility is automatically the state’s, but only if the state so decides will the particular case be added to the remediation list. As far as I know, there is no inspection plan and no automatic procedure, and to find the responsible police officer, a prosecutor or a legal expert would be needed who have had experience with such matters. In addition to the fund, a compulsory liability insurance should be introduced for environmentally hazardous plants” – says the environmental lawyer.
According to Csaba Kiss, the situation in Hungary is not bad in terms of the number of environmentally damaging accidents, but the abundance of underground pollution is a big problem. “In this respect, it would actually be better from an environmental point of view if one of the oligarchs finally saw the business opportunity in such remediation. True, this would not be ideal in terms of corruption, but it seems as if there is no other way forward in this country.”
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.
The treatment of old or even World War II contaminants, should be separated from current case remediation, for which, according to Csaba Kiss, there is an effectively responsive institutional system. Although in some cases a “privileged” ownership background may slow down the administration and reduce the amount of the penalty imposed. Yet, if anything, only swift official action and heavy fines can discourage polluters. In some countries, such fines are imposed almost immediately for environmental damages, and polluters can appeal in court later.
“However, the introduction of such a system requires a government committed to the issue of environmental protection, but in Hungary this is mostly undertaken by governments in order to gain votes, as was the case at the time with the planned battery plant in the Tokaj wine region or with the planned Nagymaros dam on the Danube in 1998” – concludes the environmental lawyer.
Written by Gabriella Horn. The Hungarian version of this article is available here.
This article is the result of the cooperation of academic researchers and journalists in the project titled 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 – is to call the attention to environmental problems, corruption and the social consequences of these in Central and Eastern Europe. Cover photo: Dániel Németh.