600 tonnes of used car batteries were stored without fire protection in Salgótarján
The lack of fire safety equipment at the Éltex Kft. waste disposal site in Salgótarján endangers life, physical safety, and property safety, the disaster management authority found in February, fining the company one million HUF. The on-site inspection was carried out after a 21-tonne truck carrying lithium-ion batteries to the site caught fire in the city centre of Salgótarján, which took almost 10 hours to extinguish. The batteries are stored outdoors at the site, where only non-hazardous waste is allowed to be collected, according to the permit, the company’s inspection revealed.
Both the disaster management and environmental protection authorities have found breaches of the law in the case of the waste disposal site operated by Éltex Kft. in Salgótarján, where large quantities of used car batteries are stored. In recent months, the company has organised several visits to the public and the local press to reassure residents protesting against what they consider a dangerous activity and refute the “scare stories” published in the media.
In Salgótarján, north-eastern Hungary, one of the market-leading waste handling companies, Éltex Kft. has opened a new 36-hectare site. Many people in the city are worried and even protesting about the waste management activities near residential areas; the distrust was also increased by the fire of a truck carrying batteries last December.
We have now received the decisions requested in our previous FOI requests, which makes it difficult to call the activities at the site reassuring.
What was penalised by one authority, was imposed by the other
Following the fire involving a truck carrying 21 tonnes of batteries, a “coordinated official inspection” was carried out at the Éltex waste site. This resulted in several penalty decisions.
The Nógrád County Government Office imposed a fine of HUF 1.3 million for storing 32 tonnes of lithium-ion batteries in the open “without any protection”. The operator of the plant said it was a “mistake” because the products were “too wet” to be placed in the hall when they were delivered.
But the Nógrád County Directorate of Emergency Management also fined the company HUF 1 million and banned them from carrying out waste management activities at the site for 45 days. According to the official decision
nearly 600 tonnes of lithium-ion batteries are stored in the two halls but a number of fire protection devices are not installed or not in use.
The decision states that although Éltex Kft. has been operating on the site since 30 March 2022, it has not restored the fire safety equipment to its original state, either before or since the start of operations. In imposing the fine, it was taken into account as an aggravating circumstance that the company had already been fined HUF 100,000 for fire safety deficiencies in May 2022
These fines are relatively small amounts because the used car batteries stored at the site, each weighing around 500-700 kilograms, are not considered hazardous waste according to the authorities. The site is not even licensed to collect hazardous waste.
The waste management permit states that the company intends to collect 1 490 tonnes of scrap metal per year and that, since the authorities consider that this activity has no significant environmental impact, no environmental permit is required. The decision does not mention the hundreds of tonnes of batteries, which were the only waste stored on the site.
A month after the permit was issued, a truck carrying “non-hazardous” batteries caught fire. It seems that this fire was the reason why the authorities finally agreed to look around the Éltex site in Salgótarján and to punish the company for the life-threatening situation that had been going on for almost a year.
To reassure the public, the company organised two public visits for 25-30 people and then for the local press as well. At the time of the site visits in April and May, the fire safety deficiencies in the storage halls had not yet been remedied.
A video of the Salgótarján Municipal Television shows that on the site
more than a thousand used car batteries are currently stored in the open, based on the instructions of disaster management.
The manager said that the batteries are stored in the box in the way prescribed by the disaster management authorities, with adequate spacing, but that they want to return them to a closed place in a month’s time because “that’s the safe thing to do”.
We contacted the disaster management authority, however, they only replied by saying that “issues connected to waste management permits” do not fall within their competence. They also refused to comply with our FOI request on the accident last December. When contacted by phone, fire brigade colonel Tibor Seres said that the investigation into the fire involving the truck carrying batteries was still ongoing and was being conducted by another authority.
Press reports were also “refuted” by a public visit to another site
It seems that the best way to reassure locals is for Éltex Kft. to organise group visits to its sites. In fact, they organised such a visit to their waste processing plant in Kistarcsa, where it was also said that one of their aims was to refute ‘untrue’ reports that appeared in the media.
In the case of the Kistarcsa site, we previously reported that scrap metal from the Komárom battery factory, which according to the waste register was transported to Kistarcsa and from there to Mocsa, “lost its hazardous character” during transport. Our article prompted the company to demand a correction, and when we failed to comply, it sued us. However, we won the case – at first instance – and the court ruled that we were right to claim, on the basis of the decision fining the company, that the classification code of the 83 tonnes of toxic waste containing heavy metals stored improperly at the Mocsa site had been falsified.
2022 was a good year for the company
According to the annual company report, waste management company Éltex Kft. had a good year last year: the company’s net turnover in 2022 was HUF 34 billion, which is an increase of more than HUF 12 billion compared to the HUF 21.7 billion turnover in 2021. The company also managed to increase its profit by HUF 1.4 billion compared to the previous year: while in 2021 the profit was HUF 2 billion, last year it was HUF 3.4 billion.
Earlier, Válasz Online reported that Éltex was also linked to the son-in-law of Hungarian Prime Minister, István Tiborcz’s business circle through Global Refuse Holding Zrt., which became a majority shareholder in the company in 2022 and is owned by the Central European Opportunity Private Equity Fund (CEOM).
Translated by Zita Szopkó. The original, more detailed Hungarian version of this article was written by Zsuzsa Bodnár and can be found here.