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Sludge-hit Hungarian villagers demand compensation

Posted by arnon_k On October - 7 - 2010 ADD COMMENTS

There was no stopping the avalanche of toxic red sludge: It smashed through the door of Kati Holczer’s house, trapping the mother and her toddler in a sea of caustic waste.

She saved her 3-year-old son, Bence, by placing him on a sofa that was floating in the muck. Then she called her husband Balazs, who was working in Austria, to say goodbye.

“We’re going to die,” she told him, chest-deep in the acrid mud.

After the terror came the pain: Holczer and her two rescuers were among dozens of villagers suffering from deep chemical burns following Monday’s spill.

Their fox terrier Mazli — his name means “Luck” in Hungarian — lay dead in the yard Wednesday, still chained to a stake. Luca, their Labrador, was swept away by the 9-foot-high wave of toxic waste that poured from a breached reservoir at a nearby alumina factory.

The ecological catastrophe that is threatening the Danube River — one of Europe’s main waterways — has left a trail of shattered lives.

On Wednesday, furious villagers, their shoes splattered with the caustic red mud, crowded around an official of the company blamed for the disaster and demanded compensation for destroyed homes, fields and livelihoods. Authorities have ordered a criminal inquiry into the accident, which killed at least four people, injured 120 and left three people missing.

After bursting from the reservoir and flooding three villages Monday, the sludge — a waste product of aluminum production that can contain heavy metals — ended up in the Marcal River, part of the tributary system feeding the Danube, some 45 miles to the north. Hundreds of people were evacuated.

Local streams were swollen Wednesday and tinted ochre by the sludge, and residents said they were empty of fish.

Imre Szakacs, head of the county crisis management committee, told the state-run MTI news agency the lye-like slurry was expected to reach the Danube by the weekend or early next week. Chemical analyses of the sludge were ongoing Wednesday.

However, Kolontar Mayor Karoly Tili told The Associated Press the material was not radioactive as feared. “We can say for sure that according to the measurements there is no radioactivity,” he said.

Still, concerns grew about damage to marine life in the region and beyond. South of Hungary, the 1,775-mile Danube flows through Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Moldova before emptying into the Black Sea.

Hungary’s National Rescue Service said engineers considered diverting the Marcal River into nearby fields but decided not to, fearing the damage would be too great.

Workers were extracting sludge from the river and using plaster and acid to try to neutralize it. Initial measurements showed the sludge was extremely alkaline, with a pH value of 13, the agency said.

The European Union said it feared the toxic flood could turn into an ecological disaster and urged Hungarian authorities to focus on keeping the sludge from reaching the Danube.

“It is important that we do …. everything possible that it would not endanger the Danube,” EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik told the AP in Brussels. “We have to do this very moment everything possible … (to) limit the extent of the damage.”

“This is a serious environmental problem,” EU spokesman Joe Hennon said. “We are concerned, not just for the environment in Hungary, but this could potentially cross borders.”

Greenpeace was more even emphatic.

The sludge spill is “one of the top three environmental disasters in Europe in the last 20 or 30 years,” said Herwit Schuster, a spokesman for Greenpeace International.

Angry villagers gathered outside the mayor’s office in Kolontar late Wednesday had more immediate concerns, as they berated a senior official of MAL Rt., the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company that owns the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant, demanding compensation.

Local officials said 34 homes in the village were unlivable. However, furious residents said the disaster had destroyed the whole community by making their real estate valueless.

“The whole settlement should be bulldozed into the ground,” bellowed Janos Potza, straining to be heard above his neighbors. “There’s no point for anyone to go back home.”

“Those who can, will move out of Kolontar. From now on, this is a dead town,” fumed Beata Gasko Monek.

Visibly shaken, Jozsef Deak, the company’s operations manager, said it would not shy away from taking responsibility if found guilty. He spoke from the passenger seat of a police cruiser, using its speaker system as villagers crowded around.

Two days after the red torrent disgorged an estimated 35 million cubic feet (1 million cubic meters) of toxic waste, it was not known why part of the reservoir collapsed.

National Police Chief Jozsef Hatala was heading the investigation into the spill because of its importance and complexity, police spokeswoman Monika Benyi said. Investigators would look into whether on-the-job carelessness was a factor, she said.

The huge reservoir, more than 1,000 feet (300 meters) long and 1,500 feet (450 meters) wide, was no longer leaking Wednesday and a triple-tiered protective wall was being built around its damaged section. Interior Minister Sandor Pinter said guards have been posted at the site to give an early warning in case of any new emergency.

Greenpeace workers took sludge samples on Tuesday and were having them tested to determine whether they contain heavy metals.

Red sludge is a byproduct of the refining of bauxite into alumina, the basic material for manufacturing aluminum. Treated sludge is often stored in ponds where the water eventually evaporates, leaving behind a dried red clay-like soil.

Hungarian company officials have insisted the sludge is not considered hazardous waste according to EU standards. The company has also rejected criticism that it should have taken more precautions at the reservoir.

In Hungary’s hardest-hit towns, emergency workers and construction crews in respirators and other hazmat gear worked Wednesday to clear roads and homes coated by thick red sludge and caustic muddy water.

In Kolontar, a military construction crew assembled a pontoon bridge across a toxic stream so residents could briefly return to their homes and retrieve some belongings.

In sharp contrast to the emergency workers, villagers salvaged possessions with little more than rubber gloves for protection. Women with pants coated in red mud cleared the muck away from their homes with snow shovels.

The International Commission for the Protection of the Danube, which manages the river and its tributaries, said that sludge spill could trigger long-term damaging effects for both wildlife and humans.

“It is a very serious accident and has potential implications for other countries,” Philip Weller, the group’s executive secretary, said from Brussels.

Weller said the commission’s early warning alarm system was triggered by the spill, which means factories and towns along the Danube may have to shut down their water intake systems.

He said large fish in the Danube could ingest any heavy metals carried downstream, potentially endangering people who eat them.

Alumina plants are scattered around the world, with the 12 largest concentrated in Australia, Brazil and China. The plant in Hungary ranks 53rd in the world in production, according to industry statistics.

The United States has three facilities similar to the one in Hungary. However, regulation and waste storage practices make it unlikely that a similar spill could occur, industry officials and regulators said.

The three U.S. facilities are in Texas and Louisiana, along the Gulf Coast, allowing the plants to take advantage of the hot weather in treating the waste, said Charles Johnson, of the Aluminum Association, a Washington-based lobbying group.

Europe demands China budge on currency

Posted by arnon_k On October - 7 - 2010 ADD COMMENTS

European Union leaders said Wednesday that they had urged Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to act to raise the value of China’s yuan currency, during a fractious summit in Brussels.

“We stressed that structural reforms in Europe and in China were essential, and highlighted the role of appropriate exchange rates,” EU President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said in joint remarks released at the end of talks that lasted under three hours.

“We underlined the importance of rebalancing global growth and reducing global imbalances,” the pair said, referring to concerns that an undervalued yuan skews trade flows in favour of cheap Chinese exports.

An EU source told AFP that the effort to get China to ease its policy of pegging the yuan to the US dollar, at a time when the euro has hit an eight-month high on currency markets, fell flat.

“We put our cards on the table,” the source said. “We heard each other out and managed to establish a dialogue of sorts in the economic sphere.

“But it was not an easy summit.”

Earlier, Wen had told a Europe-China business forum: “I say to Europe’s leaders — don’t join the chorus pressing (China) to revalue the yuan.”

A sharp yuan appreciation would “cause many Chinese companies to go bankrupt, casting people out of work … and creating social unrest,” Wen said.

The summit, which started an hour late, ended with Wen, due next in Rome for talks with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, left without meeting the Western media.

A planned press conference was cancelled when it became clear that time constraints and sharply diverging views on currency, trade, representation for emerging nations in global institutions, and human rights issues, dear to the EU’s heart, would not be bridged, the EU source added.

Van Rompuy and Barroso said that the EU also told Wen of “the need for a level playing field in China for our businesses,” including the “opening up of public procurement” — government contracts.

Europe has threatened to make it tougher for Chinese companies to win major contracts if it does not ease barriers.

Rompuy and Barroso also noted that on the issue of greater representation for emerging economies on global bodies such as the International Monetary Fund — something Beijing wants to see — more say came with added responsibilities.

“We underlined that enhanced representation should go hand in hand with enhanced responsibilities in global governance,” the two said.

Changes to board representation are likely to figure at the upcoming IMF annual meeting in Washington. The EU has offered reforms, including changes to its own seats, but attached a host of conditions in return.

China’s Wen threatens new action in Japan boat row

Posted by arnon_k On September - 22 - 2010 ADD COMMENTS

China’s premier threatened “further actions” if Japan fails immediately to release a trawler captain, as Beijing staged its highest-level intervention yet in a bitter row between Asia’s biggest powers.

Japan in turn called for talks to resolve the feud, but rejected China’s territorial claim to disputed islets near where the Chinese skipper was apprehended by Japanese coast guard crews two weeks ago.

“I strongly urge the Japanese side to release the skipper immediately and unconditionally,” Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said in New York, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

“If Japan clings to its mistake, China will take further actions, and the Japanese side shall bear all the consequences that arise,” he said, urging Tokyo to “correct its mistakes to bring relations back on track”.

The dispute between Asia’s rising giant and its most advanced economy has drawn concern in Washington, and both Wen and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan are due to hold talks at the UN this week with US President Barack Obama.

Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, also visiting New York for the UN General Assembly, dismissed China’s longstanding claim over the rocky islets, which lie near possible oil and gas fields in the East China Sea.

“There is no territorial issue,” he said.

However, Japan said Wednesday it was ready for dialogue.

“It would be good to hold high-level talks, including a comprehensive and strategic dialogue, as quickly as possible,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku told a news conference in Tokyo.

Asked if Kan should try to hold direct talks with Wen on the UN sidelines, Sengoku said: “That would be one option. We should also check if there are other ways, as soon as possible.”

China had on Tuesday dashed any hope of fence-mending talks between Wen and Kan, with a foreign ministry spokeswoman saying the atmosphere was “not suitable for such a meeting”.

“The issue has severely hurt bilateral relations,” she told reporters.

China has repeatedly demanded that detained skipper Zhan Qixiong be released, summoning Japan’s ambassador six times, calling off several official visits and planned negotiations, and cancelling cultural events.

It further announced on Sunday that it had suspended high-level exchanges after Japan decided to extend Zhan’s detention until September 29, when he must be either indicted or released.

The dispute has caused anger among the Chinese public, which is still ambivalent towards Japan after its forces occupied swathes of northern China before and during World War II.

Sengoku, the Japanese government’s top spokesman, on Tuesday emphasised the importance of keeping “narrow-minded, extreme nationalism” at bay.

At the weekend, small groups of anti-Japan demonstrators rallied in three Chinese cities over the captain’s arrest near the islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, but the protests were brief and peaceful.

On Wednesday a group of Hong Kong nationalist activists set sail for the disputed chain aboard a 150-foot (45 metre) vessel, trailed by two Hong Kong marine police boats.

US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg has said the flare-up is “unfortunate” in light of efforts by China and Japan to repair relations in recent years.

“Good relations between China and Japan are in our interest. It’s in the interest of everybody else in the region,” he said, before China warned the United States Tuesday to stay out of its territorial disputes elsewhere.

Sino-Japanese ties hit rock-bottom during the 2001-2006 premiership of conservative Junichiro Koizumi due to his annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which honours 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including war criminals.

Relations have gradually warmed in recent years as Koizumi’s successors have refrained from visiting the shrine, seen by Japan’s East Asian neighbours as a symbol of Tokyo’s past imperialism.

Wen broke the ice when he made a visit to Japan in 2007, the first visit by a Chinese leader to Tokyo since 2000.

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