Hungary’s red sludge tsunami

From the Nov.-Dec. 2010 issue of News & Letters:

Hungary’s red sludge

Red sludge flooded several villages in Hungary on Oct. 4, killing nine people, sending 80-90 to the hospital, destroying animals, houses and cars, and making farmland unusable. It killed all life in the Marcal River, a tributary of the Danube. The sludge, a by-product of industrial production of aluminum from ore, is as caustic as lye and contains toxic metals. The flood burst out when a reservoir wall failed at the Ajkai Timföldgyár alumina plant. Red sludge reservoirs exist in many countries, including at least three more sites in Hungary. Each one poses the threat of another sludge flood, toxic dust in the air, and contamination of the water table.

This disaster is emblematic of the fate of Eastern Europe after its incomplete 1989 revolutions against Communism and Russian domination. While mass opposition to environmental destruction was one of the forces leading up to the revolutions, and had elements reaching for a new society, what prevailed was the push by large sections of those countries’ ruling classes for a “Western”-style mix of private and state-capitalism. In the ensuing two decades, governments have alternated between more “free market” and more “socialist,” and the toxic waste has only piled higher.

Like Hungary’s red sludge ponds, toxic waste reservoirs worldwide are shaky at best and need continuing maintenance to keep the poisons contained, from Alberta’s tar sands to coal ash slurry lakes like the one at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, which poured out a billion gallons when a dike broke two years ago. But corporations and governments are cutting ever more corners. So it is with all the fundamental problems of society. Neither Communist state-capitalism nor Western “free market” capitalism can solve any of them–they just fester. Capitalism has declared environmental and moral bankruptcy and is only waiting to be replaced by a society on truly human foundations.

–Franklin Dmitryev

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