Robert Smyth in Budapest -
With the threat of the construction of a dark, satanic coal-fired power plant across the border in neighbouring Slovakia, just a stone's throw from Hungary's Unesco-listed wine region of Tokaj, now off the immediate agenda, Hungarians are literally on the march against a more imminent threat practically in the beloved vineyards of Tokaj - a biomass power plant.
"It would set a very bad precedent to the Slovaks should Hungary go ahead with the biomass plant," says Andras Takacs, a key figure in the campaign against three mooted power projects in and around the Tokaj region.
Construction has already begun on one biomass plant within the Tokaj region, which is listed as a Unesco "World Heritage Site" and was the first in the world to establish a wine-classification system. BHD Hoeromu plans to invest about €140m in the power plant in Szerencs, essentially the entry point to the Tokaj region, which is expected to commence operation by the start of 2010.
Takacs and his fellow protestors are hoping that Hungary's government will step in and compensate BHD for the work carried out so far and encourage the company, perhaps with incentives, to build elsewhere in the country. They already have the support of Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom, who has stated in the local press that even if the plant will not itself be a serious source of pollution, then the trucks that bring the straw will.
However, Prime Minister Ferenc GyurcsÃ¡ny and his increasingly unpopular government have not yet spoken out against the plant, primarily because it doesn't want to upset a company whose owner, Intertraverz, is considering building a further nine such biomass plants around the country. To stop Intertraverz at the first step could be fatal for the entire programme, and especially unwelcome given that Hungary currently could do with all the investment it can get to wake it from its economic slumber.
However, Laszlo Meszaros, president of the Tokaj Renaissance Association, a group of winemakers and wineries who aim to re-establish the once legendary status of the region, argues that the heat generated from the plant will hurt the unique and delicate microclimate of the Tokaj region. Tokaj is known for its Aszu wines that rely on the abundance of botrytis cinerea, a fungus also known as the "noble rot." This benevolent fungus is created by the combination of autumn mist rolling in from the confluence of the Bodrog and Tisza rivers, coupled with perfect ripening conditions. This shrivels the grapes and creates the renowned concentration and complexity in the wines.
BHD declined to return bne's calls, but has stated that biomass-fuelled power generation will enable Hungary to meet its CO2 cuts and renewable energy commitments made under the Kyoto Protocol and the accession treaty with the EU. The planned capacity of the straw-fired power plant is 50 megawatts (MW) of electricity, which would then be sold to the northern Hungary electricity distributor ÃMÃSZ. "The plant will allow the Hungarian agricultural sector to profitably dispose of a portion of the approximately 4m tonnes of wheat straw and 8m tonnes of maize stalk produced in Hungary annually," argues BHD. In addition, biomass-fuelled power generation produces ash as a by-product, which can then be sold as fertiliser to the Hungarian agricultural sector.
Speaking on Hungarian Television's Freedom of Speech programme, RÃ³navÃ¶lgyi EndrÃ©nÃ©, mayor of Szerencs, quoted a passage from a history book. She highlighted the considerable resistance to Szerenc's sugar factory in the late 19th century - a factory that brought prosperity to the town. She added that Szerencs has approached Unesco to ensure that the power station to be constructed would be acceptable to the organisation.
The campaigner Takacs reveals that Unesco is sending an investigation team to the area some time in November. The hope is that the UN body will put pressure on the government to act before the prestigious Unesco status is removed. As it stands, there is no national law to protect the Tokaj wine region, says Takacs. He also warns that a proposed hydroelectric project at Abaujszanto, where water will be pumped from the River Bodrog and shifted across a large area in very close proximity to the vineyards, could also wreak havoc on the microclimate.
The Tokaj Renaissance Association's Meszaros - who is also managing director of Disznoko, one of the region's leading estates - also questioned the logic of situating a straw-fired plant in a region where there is little straw. He notes that the Szerencs plant will lead to an increase of 20,000 trucks traversing the region annually, adding that Romania's entry into the EU has already seen a dramatic increase in traffic right through the heart of the region.
Over in Slovakia, the local government of Trebisov has rejected plans to construct a coal-fired plant with 163-metre high chimneys that would have exhaled some 4m tonnes of pollutants each year - a proposition that saw protests on the Slovakian side. However, the Slovakian government can override the decision. While winds were predicted to carry much of the pollution south to the Tokaj vineyards of Hungary, Slovakia's own share of the northern portion of the original Tokaj wine region would get it first.
Tokaj, whose legendary Aszu wine was once dubbed "the Wine of Kings and the King of Wines" by Sun King Louis XIV, has only just recovered from 40 years of the quality-draining communist collectivisation. Now that its winemakers are making word-class wines once again, it's ironic that a supposedly "green" biomass project should threaten the region's future.
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