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Greg Dorey


Part of UK in Hungary

24th November 2010

A little help from my friends

Although preparations for the Hungarian EU Presidency are now gathering pace, ordinary life does not stop. And we know how accidents, natural disasters or international events can throw out the best laid plans.

When I saw the moving reports of the Hungarian red sludge accident on 4 October, I was shocked by the acute hardship and human tragedy the affected villages were suffering. I hoped but could not be sure that the UK would be among the first to help. In fact Hungary did not need assistance with the initial rescue operation – their disaster management team did a very good job. But our Prime Minister David Cameron was quick to offer assistance at this early stage in a telephone call to Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Our Embassy kept a close eye on developments and alerted London immediately when the State Secretary for Environment (Mr Illes) asked for technical assistance. During those early days he received saturation coverage in the evening news on Hungarian TV, taking journalists and EU experts to the disaster site. My impression was that the Hungarian authorities were dealing with the disaster in a professional and well-organised manner. They had a clear plan and acted quickly.

One key lesson learnt by the Hungarians as a result of the incident was the absence of an EU solidarity fund for Members States in the event of industrial disasters – the existing scheme only covers  natural disasters. They plan to raise this issue under their Presidency. They also want to modify EU regulations so red sludge qualifies as a hazardous substance, which it currently doesn’t.

I believe this was the first time an industrial accident of this particular type happened – with the dam of a containment pond of an Alumina plant bursting and releasing 5 million cubic metres of red mud to destroy a nearby village with a tsunami wave almost 3 metres high and to flood a 1000 hectare area. The plant is the 4th largest Alumina plant in Europe and the 12th largest in the world. The Hungarians had few lessons learnt elsewhere or protocols to draw upon in handling this catastrophe.

In response to a Hungarian wish list, the UK Office of the Government Scientific Advisor has put together a list of relevant experts who can help. Mr Illes has opted for assistance with a geological assessment of the area, including the level of chemical contamination of groundwater as well as the risk to human health and public perceptions. A team of 4 experts from the British Geological Survey and Newcastle University have just completed their first mission and are currently writing their report. They worked alongside Hungarian researchers from the Academy of Sciences and the Hungarian Geological Institute. They were impressed by the steps that the Hungarian authorities have taken to tackle the disaster and spoke very highly of State Secretary Illes himself. Their findings have helped establish why the dam collapsed and should help prevent similar disasters in the future.

The leader of the UK mission tells us that they plan another visit later this month to assist with a wider impact assessment study. I understand that it will be funded by the UK National Environmental Council. This prompt and well-targeted help has earned kudos for Britain. At times like this it is very rewarding to be the main representative of the UK Government in the field. Such activities add up to something very tangible and worthwhile in the mysterious world (or so it is sometimes seen) of bilateral diplomacy. I was lucky to be able to engage with State Secretary Illes immediately after his appointment, in connection with our 10:10 Hungary campaign. A photograph of us both wearing our “10:10” tags and T-shirts hangs in the Embassy’s reception area. We know him as a forthright and dedicated environmentalist with a strong technical background, and this impression has been strongly confirmed by the feedback we received from the UK experts.

After a dreadful year of flooding and now this red sludge disaster we are wishing Hungary a trouble-free Presidency in 2011.