The First Anniversary of the Red Sludge Disaster

Three colours, green, white, and brown dominate the landscape in the village of Kolontár and the town of Devecser, nearly a year after the disaster. The colours are deeply restful to eyes grown accustomed to the all pervasive red left by the tidal wave of highly alkaline industrial waste from bauxite processing, which swept through this valley on 4 October, 2010.

The green is of the vegetation which now covers the fields, concealing the scars of the disaster; the white is of the new houses, twenty-one in neat rows in Kolontár, eighty-seven in the new housing estate in Devecser; the brown is of the timber, the wooden columns, the window frames, the doors of the new houses, each slightly different from the others. The only red in sight is in the flowers on the boxes carefully placed on each window-ledge, a gift from the Catholic charity Caritas. The government, much to the surprise of many, has fulfilled its promise to rehouse everyone affected by the disaster by mid-summer. Some accepted new homes, fully furnished. Others chose to use the money offered to buy homes locally. About thirty families accepted cash, the value of their old homes and their contents, and moved away from the area.

“The hardest days were last winter, clearing the red mud despite the snow and ice”, says Major-General Zoltán Benkovics, head of the Government Office for Reconstruction in Devecser. “The negotiations with the victims over compensation have also not been easy”, he concedes, “but everyone seems happy now”.

That impression is confirmed by a walk through the new neighbourhoods. “My only complaint is that I can’t remember which drawers I’ve put our things in”, says Éva Molnár, who lives with her partner Zoltán at the beginning of the row. I last met her in the ruins of her old home, trying to rescue her possessions, a few days after the accident. Outside, their dog Bundás barks at the newcomers – he ran to safety last October from the yard of their home, up onto the church hill in Kolontár. The firebrigade saved him from serious burns by washing the stuff off his fur with a pressurised hose.

Further down the street, Erzsébet and Zoltán Juhász were among the worst hit by the disaster. Their house bore the full brunt of the tidal wave as it struck Kolontár after the reservoir burst, barely a kilometre away across the fields.

“We were at home with our two smallest children. My baby Angyalka, 14 months, and my daughter Dóri, 3 years. My husband heard what sounded like an explosion. Within a couple of seconds the sludge was everywhere… and our lives were destroyed”, she tells me, unable to hold back the tears.

‘The flood knocked Angyalka right out of my arms, and I fell over with Dóri into the sludge… I tried to find my children, but I could only find Dóri, her little hand… I couldn’t find my baby anywhere… We had to save ourselves, we struggled up the steps into the attic.” The caustic sludge rose almost to the ceiling of their kitchen. Little Angyalka died, the youngest of the ten victims of the disaster.

Badly burnt by the caustic mud, Erzsébet, Zoltán and Dóri were found and taken by rescue-workers to safety. They spent the next month in hospital, receiving treatment for their injuries.

“There are wounds which heal, and others which don’t. The spirit hasn’t healed. You can replace everything else, you can replace a house… anything… everything… but you can’t replace a life. That life.”

“We really have to thank many people, many organizations. The Red Cross, the Baptist charity… and the state as well. The state could easily have said, ‘no compensation until the company pays for what happened’. But it’s amazing that they built these houses here in just six months… not just ours but all of them here. That was really something.”

The housing estate on the edge of Devecser is even more impressive. Row after row of new houses, with a sort of pergola in the middle, in a wide open space, for children to play and the community to gather – with flat-topped Somló hill clearly visible just a few kilometres away.

“Is that a sofa or a bed?” asks Endre Csipszer, watching the delivery men install a new piece of furniture in his front room. The house which he and his partner Teréz just moved into is much better than the old one, they say. Outside, new grass grows tentatively beside newly laid pavements. Pennants in the colours of the Hungarian flag flutter from poles in the playground. There is a sense that the government has spared no expense to prove to the people that they would not be left to suffer in silence. And the end-result is a clean-up and rebuilding effort which is drawing international attention, on how to cope with the aftermath of a disaster.

“The biggest interest has been from the Americans and the Japanese”, says György Bakondy, Hungary’s disaster management chief, fresh from nine months supervising MAL Zrt, the Aluminium company at the centre of the catastrophe. After the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and after the Japanese tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster at Fukushima, “they were especially interested in ways open to a state to exercise its own responsibility to intervene in such circumstances in the public interest”.

The way Hungary did that was to pass emergency legislation, imposing a 13 member supervisory team, led by Dr Bakondy on the Aluminium company.

“This was a very interesting legal situation, in which the property relations remained unchanged”, he explains, “the state did not nationalize MAL, their ownership rights were left intact, and indeed the management of the company stayed in place. But we moved in to supervise certain activities of the company, to make sure that certain tasks were carried out, that there would be no unjustified expenditures, and to ensure the long-term operation of the company.”

The most important job, he adds, was to oversee the change from so-called wet technology, which produces the red sludge as a by-product of processing bauxite, to a dry technology which extracts the liquid from the waste, and makes it easier and much less dangerous to dispose of.

“Other big industrial accidents have usually destroyed the companies involved. So it was very important for us that production in this case could restart, so that the company would have an income, which would help to finance these technological improvements, as well as the long-term functioning of the company.”

Another important task his staff oversaw, was the shoring up of the other walls of Reservoirs X and IX, and the installation of a proper supervisory system, including cameras. “The old monitoring system belonged in a museum”, he says.

Csaba Szabó is another state official central to the clean-up, in his case, with responsibility for agriculture. “We thought initially that we would focus on energy crops, because we assumed that this land would be too polluted to grow food on”, he explains, standing neck high in a field of maize, between Kolontár and Devecser. The field was in the direct path of the sludge. “But analyses show now that the food is safe, and can be used as animal fodder after all.” But they’re taking no risks, he insists, and the corn as it ripens will be subject to more rigorous tests before it is fed to the animals.

Next we visit a fast-growing poplar plantation, just below the castle park in Devecser. The rise in the ground meant there was a bigger concentration of sludge here, so up to 40 cm of polluted top soil had to be removed. Now the soil is a healthier-looking brown, and the trees are almost waist height. When they reach three metres, in October 2012, they will be harvested for energy production in the power station in Ajka.

Close to the railway line, beneath a wild plum tree, stands one of many miracles associated by local people with the disaster, a fresh water spring, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The sludge passed within centimetres of the spring, on both sides, but left the little shrine from which the water flows, untouched. The government commissioner drinks handfuls of the water. Rather less boldly, I taste it for myself. Cold and refreshing, with no suspicious smell or flavour. A workman, operating a digger in the field nearby, waits for us to finish to fill his bottle.

In the castle park in Devecser, the ancient trees have been individually scrubbed, to remove the tidal mark of red which stained each trunk up to a height of two metres. The soil around them here has been removed as well, and new soil stands in big heaps, ready to be spread out. On the far side of the road, the demolition of the last five or six buildings is underway. Firemen spray water from a hose as a digger smashes its way through the old post office. Nearly 300 buildings in Devecser had to be knocked down, their walls and foundations fatally weakened by the sludge.

“I think it was both an ecological catastrophe and an industrial accident”, says the mayor, Tamás Toldi, as we watch the last wall of the post office crumble. “And I feel strongly, and many people feel strongly here, that it was preventable, that people should have seen it coming, there should have been a system which predicted it, and warned us in advance. As it was we had no warning whatsoever.” On the wall of the town hall, are two key pieces of paper – the demolition timetable, district by district, and the timetable for each family to move into their new homes. Both are almost completed.

What will Devecser look like in two years time? “Here in the foreground you will see a beautiful memorial park to the disaster,” says Mr Toldi, pointing to the wide open space near the railway track, where the houses once began. “Within that, there will be park benches, playgrounds, and fishing ponds. Behind that, a sportsground with a football pitch. And beyond that, a light industrial park.” There are plans to try to attract employment to renewable energy projects. “People here have had enough of environmental destruction. It’s very important for them that any jobs created here are not at the cost of more damage to the environment.”

Another positive sign for the mayor is that in the past weeks, there have been the first signs of outsiders wanting to move to his town, to take advantage of what they see as the potential growth. “They’ve heard of our plans for the future, and they want to be part of it”, says Tamás Toldi. Is he not afraid to keep living, just a few kilometres down the valley from an Aluminium plant which has already proved its destructive force? “Up until last Christmas, we were afraid of another breach at the dam, of another inundation”, he admits. “But the construction of a new dyke system, across the fields in Kolontár, reassured us, and now we feel completely safe.”

So can the clean-up and reconstruction effort be defined as an unqualified success? I ask Major-General Zoltán Benkovics, head of the team at the Government Office for Reconstruction. “It would be, if ten people hadn’t died, hundreds been injured, and such unspeakable damage wrought”, he replies.

The question of ultimate responsibility for the disaster, and who should eventually pay for it, stills hangs over the local population, the Aluminium company, and the state authorities alike.

“First of all there is the criminal investigation”, says György Bakondy. “The second question is the responsibility of public bodies, whether those offical monitoring agencies whose job it is to oversee the running of industry, fulfilled or failed in their jobs. And the third question is the responsibility under civil law.”

The criminal investigation was begun by the local prosecutor, and soon passed to the National Bureau of Investigations, Hungary’s equivalent of the FBI. That investigation is nearly complete, but there has been little public comment on the results so far. According to the police, the chief executive of MAL, Zoltán Bakonyi and three other employees are suspected of “negligence in the course of their professional duties, causing damage to the environment, injury and loss of life”.

The state acknowledged the failure of the monitoring agencies last December, when Parliament passed a new law giving the national mining authority the final say in whether an industrial site is given permission to operate or not. One of the problems at Ajka was that any number of individual authorities – engineering, environmental, health and safety, water management, mining – all had the power to rule on their specific fields, but the final approval was left to a town clerk in Devecser council, without the necessary knowledge, tools or information to make that decision. Just 9 days before the disaster, the environmental authority made a brief site visit, ploughed through hundreds of pages of documents provided by the company, and declared the reservoir “safe”.

By tightening up the legislation, Hungary appears to have avoided potential legal action against it by the European Commission, for inadequate safeguards at a supervisory level.

This weakness in supervision, however, has been one of the many planks in an argument presented by MAL Zrt, that it fulfilled all the regulatory stipulations, and therefore cannot be held responsible for an accident, which company lawyers argue, must have been caused by a sudden and unpredictable movement of the earth below the wall of the reservoir, which caused it to collapse – effectively, an act of God.

That argument cuts little ice with State Secretary for the Environment Zoltán Illés.

“Our standpoint is that that disaster was not a natural phenomenon, not a natural disaster, but an industrial catastrophe. And in that case, not UFOs are responsible, but definitely the company which is responsible for the technology, responsible for the waste, for the disposal of the waste, and the running of the whole operation.”

Aside from the criminal investigation, and civil cases brought both by the state and individuals claiming compensation for the physical damage they suffered, the company also faces the likelihood of a heavy fine for environmental damage, which could be issued – within a year of the disaster – by local authorities.

According to Zoltán Illés, the clean-up already cost around 35 billion forints (100 million euros, 150 million dollars), and it is still far from over. That money has been paid from a so-called open-topped state fund, but the government clearly wants, and local people expect the company to pay back at least some of that money. Asked whether an out-of-court settlement might be reached between the government and MAL, the state secretary replied that this “might easily” be the solution.

The government is clearly having to walk a tightrope between ensuring that any punishment the company receives does not bankrupt it completely – with the loss of the six to eight thousand jobs which depend on it locally – satisfying the victims’ desire to see justice done, and recouping the money it has spent. On the other hand, MAL is part of a business empire belonging to some of the richest men in Hungary. The civil action launched by the state deliberately targets individual owners of MAL, rather than the company as a whole. Well-placed sources suggest an agreement may be reached with the company before the first anniversary of the disaster in October.

Beyond the Torna stream in Kolontár, diggers take advantage of a break in several days of rain to resume work, scooping great bucketfuls of dark red water from the former village fishing pond into specially prepared storage ponds nearby – the whole scene looks like a trout farm – for red fish. Once the main pond is drained, the remaining mud will be scraped from the walls and base, then new water, and eventually, new fish introduced. The red water which has been removed will be treated, then pumped into the stream. One hundred kilometres of the Torna and Marcal rivers are now being dredged, to remove the sludge which settled on the river bed as a result of the dumping of gypsum powder last October and November. That is the last major phase of the clean-up operation.

Almost one year after the disaster, Erzsébet Juhász has a small tomato plant growing in her new garden – salvaged from among the weeds of where her old garden once grew. Her new baby will be born in November. Adam, she plans to call him, after the first man on earth.

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