March 2, 2011
What is Red in Hungary's 2010 Red Sludge Disaster?
Sociologist Zsuzsa Gille addressed the political background and implications of the toxic spill that has devastated Hungary's countryside.
In the second of three lectures in CIS’s World Beyond the Headlines series, sociologist Zsuzsa Gille spoke at the Social Science building on February 24 about the political background and implications of the massive toxic spill that has devastated Hungary’s countryside.
Gille began by providing background information on the disaster. On October 4, a wall in an industrial waste storage reservoir at the MAL Hungarian Aluminum plant partially collapsed, unleashing over 21 million cubic feet of caustic red mud into the neighboring villages and ecosystems. Waves of red mud up to seven feet high ravaged the area, killing ten and injuring and displacing hundreds. The highly alkaline sludge, a byproduct of aluminum production, extinguished all life in the nearby Marcal River, a tributary of the Danube.
Gille contextualized the spill—widely called Hungary’s worst ever ecological disaster—within the country’s recent postsocialist history. The maintenance of the red mud reservoir, she stated, had been subject to two vastly different environmental policies. It had been originally constructed under the communist regime, and it continued to operate after the country’s 2004 accession to the EU. Gille compared the environmental policies of socialist and postsocialist Hungary to investigate the possible political causes of the accident.
“I’m going to place [the spill] in two particular historical contexts in order to answer ‘What is exactly red in this disaster?’” she said. “What does this disaster have to do with the state socialist past and what it has to do with communists and socialists that are currently in Hungary?”
Gille is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of the 2008 book From the Cult of Waste to the Trash Heap of History: The Politics of Waste in Socialist and Postsocialist Hungary. Gille addressed what she sees to be the Hungarian public’s misconceived notion of socialism’s role in the disaster.
Many in Hungary, she said, incorrectly believe that socialism is inherently prone to such natural disasters, believing “the idea that socialism was careless about waste, about the environment, and [that] what under communism we may have seen as the ‘industrial pride of socialism’ is now the ‘environmental hall of shame of the nation.’”
Gille argued that the spill was in fact caused by a combination of socialist Hungary’s emphasis on recycling waste and postsocialist Hungary’s emphasis on end-of-pipe technologies. The environmental policies of the two eras led to the continued storage of red mud, raising the likelihood of such an accident occurring.
“This case demonstrates the worst of both worlds: the socialist era insistence on delaying safe disposal in the interest of reuse and recycle, and the present-day profit interests in end-of-pipe technologies.”
Gille then opened the lecture to questions from the audience. The discussion covered topics ranging from cleanup efforts, Hungarian and EU environmental policies, and the criminal investigation of the MAL executives responsible for the spill.
Asked whether the construction of such an unstable reservoir would have been approved under postsocialist Hungary’s environmental regulations, Gille stepped back to examine the usefulness of asking such a question.
“You always have to ask ‘Did they have enough information? Did they in fact in the ‘80’s know that this was a geologically inappropriate site?’ I can imagine that they did, and they went ahead anyway; we certainly have examples of that from socialism. You have to ask, though,” she concluded, “for how many years are we going to be able to blame things on the socialist past?”
The lecture was sponsored by the Center for International Studies, the Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies, and the Program on the Global Environment. The World Beyond the Headlines series brings scholars and journalists together to consider major international issues and how they are covered in the media.