You may have seen the red trees of Hungary on one of those “these look fake, but are real!” image galleries; at least that’s how I first discovered the Ajka red flood that tore through the Hungarian countryside in 2010. The disaster received a ton of press due to the shockingly visible impact of the waste on the landscape–trees, buildings, cars, essentially everything in the path of the 1–2 m (3–7 ft) high wave was marked with a deep red line–but I was curious as to how these spaces looked ten years later when the impacts were largely absent from the public eye and the crimson streaks had faded.
After moving to Hungary in 2016, I began researching the areas affected by one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of the European Union. I realized that the severed MAL reservoir that caused the flood of toxic waste was possibly a mere 30 minutes from our new town and I wanted to find these spaces to understand more about the environmental injustices that impacted the communities here; ten people died, over a hundred injured, and even more were displaced in the small rural villages of Kolontár and Devecser.
Flashbacks to my days as a Geography undergrad student wandering around Charleston and the outlying areas recording field notes, as well as researching the origins of the food sourced by the College of Charleston for my graduate thesis–where I creeped on so.many.buildings over Google Maps / Street View trying to understand what took place inside.
This journey to see the village of Kolontár and the trees of Devecser was not a simple one; even after poring over maps in Google, outdated blogposts, and exhausting Street View, my friend and I eventually decided to literally drive around the villages and research the areas on foot to discover more of what took place here ten years ago.
As always, remember that environmental disasters are not merely environmental; this toxic wave didn’t just occur in isolation — but was caused by human action. Magyar Alumínium Termelő és Kereskedelmi Zrt (MAL), the alumina company that owned the dam that breached into the nearby villages, owned 4% of the world’s alumina market at the time (and refused responsibility). The rural villages in the path of the sludge are poorer communities and at the time dependent on agriculture or employment at the plant to survive. While fined 472 million Euros in environmental damages, the impacts of the MAL industrial waste remain both in the landscape (levels of toxicity are still considered dangerous) and socially, as survivors of the red flood continue to struggle with the financial, mental, and emotional impacts of the disaster.
“’These people are billionaires, and they couldn’t care less about the rest of us,’ said Fuchs, who was the first to launch a lawsuit seeking damages. ‘Enough is enough. Innocent people die while they live happily ever after?!'”Marton Dunai. 2011. “Hungary Villages Heal Slowly from Red Sludge Spill.” Reuters. Available here.
This environmental injustice is compounded by the anti-Roma sentiment in the country, particularly evident in Devecser, where one third of the village’s population is of Romani descent. A marginalized group in Europe–especially Eastern Europe–about 800,000 Romani people live in Hungary, a country with a population of 10 million. Historically discriminated against and frequently the target of hate crimes, Roma groups are disproportionally poorer, with less access to education and healthcare as their Hungarian neighbors.
“Devecser, then, serves as microcosm. It was like any other Hungarian town in Veszprem County before the great wave struck, a valley with deep agricultural traditions, in recent years wounded by crumbling job prospects. Locals also nursed antipathy for the Roma concentrated near the town center. That downtown is also home to what is known as a ‘black’ high school – meaning, ‘white’ Hungarians send their kids to school in larger cities nearby. Left behind, the Romanies are effectively segregated.”Michael J. Jordan. 2011. “Roma in the Red Sludge.” The Mantle. Available here.
This post is divided into two parts:
- I’ll start with an overview of the location, the disaster, the impact of the red sludge on the villages in its path, as well as updates since 2010.
- The second half of the post is my own geographic fieldwork in the area ten years after the disaster (May 2020).
Where are we?
The small towns of Kolontár and Devecser are loctated in Veszprém County, Hungary. West of Budapest and north of the country’s largest lake–Lake Balaton–these villages are near the city of Ajka. The MAL Alumina Production and Trading Company is located just outside of Ajka, in between the city and roughly 10 km (6 miles) from Kolontár.
The Flood: “Everything is gone, everything we had.”
On October 4th, 2010 at 12:25pm CEST, the northwest corner of the number 10 containment pond reservoir of the MAL alumina plant collapsed, resulting in the release of over a million cubic meters of toxic, highly corrosive sludge. The wave of highly alkaline red “mud”–the waste product of refining bauxite into alumina, a form of aluminum oxide–destroyed everything in its path, flooding the villages of Kolontár, Devecser, and Somlóvásárhely. The movement of the flood was so powerful that it physically transported cars and vans in the village of Devecser.
The sludge contains a combination “of solid impurities, heavy metals such as cadmium, cobalt and lead,
and the processing chemicals” (Toth, 144). A study by Greenpeace found levels of chromium, arsenic, and mercury in the waste, although the Hungarian government stated that the liquid was not poisonous for people or the environment. Much of the human injures caused by the breach included severe chemical burns from the high pH of the waste; more than 100 people were injured, ten died (cause of death estimated to be drowning), and the flood killed all large number of marine, plant, and wildlife surrounding the nearby Marcal and Torna rivers. At the time of the flood, Tibor Dodson, a spokesperson for the Hungarian Disaster Management Agency, stated: “The Marcal River is dead.”
The 1–2 m (3–7 ft) high wave dyed everything in its path–leaving a trail of red throughout the countryside and villages. Over 250 homes, 800 people, and over one thousand hectares of land were affected.
“Still in pain from the death a few years earlier of their son, who had been hit by a train, the Juhaszes saw their home destroyed, watched Dora suffer severe internal burns after ingesting toxic sludge, and had to endure another death in the family when Angyalka, who was barely a toddler, drowned in it.Dimiter Kenarov. 2011. “Recalculating ‘Normal’ in Hungarian Disaster Zone.” Pulitzer Center. Available here.
‘Our family is cursed,’ Mrs. Jushasz said, tears streaking her cheeks. ‘Tragedy follows us everywhere.”
As the wave started to reach (and eventually met) the Danube, large amounts of gypsum and chemical fertilizers were added to the Marcal and Torna rivers in an attempt to contain the chemicals from reaching other countries; the hundreds of tons of plaster and acetic acid successfully lowered the acidity of the water. Unlike the Marcal, where all fish were killed after the sludge entered the stream, the levels were low enough to be considered safe when merging with the Danube. While contained-ish in rural western Hungary, concerns were raised about the effects of breathing in these chemicals as the sludge dried and turned to dust; this could potentially reach other locations by wind. MAL resumed operations just ten days after the flood and implemented the newer “dry” technology that creates a red dust from the waste–rather than storing the sludge in an open air reservoir–that is then released into the atmosphere, furthering the concerns over respiratory issues as these new containment holds were also uncovered.
The Aftermath: “I was twice reborn last year… it is impossible to forget. But go elsewhere? I’ve never lived anywhere else. Where else would I go?”
One of the largest employers in the area, MAL took over the alumna plant in 1995; the facility was originally established in 1943 and the handover to MAL was part of a mass privatization effort by the Hungarian government in the 1990s following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In an effort to maximize profit, the company continued to produce large amounts of sludge with little implementation of technological advances (although many existed in the field), had minimal efforts to reduce the amount of waste created by their operations, and did not comply with its own standards of disposal.
In 2003, MAL reached an agreement with the government to change the waste created by their operations to “non-hazardous” and therefore, under less strict regulation. Despite satellite images of the reservoir indicating movement each year, the fact that MAL was not required to include a safety barrier to control movement of the sludge, and readings on October 3rd showing warning signs of collapse, the company was not obligated to pay the victims of the breach; their liability insurance was not required to cover the spill of toxic waste from the plant into the nearby villages. An article published by the newspaper Nepszabadsag stated that at least twenty plant workers testified to police that they notified management of leaks but were told to keep quiet about the issue.
On September 16th. MAL was fined 135 billion Forint (389 million Euro), a fine four times the cost of the estimated cleanup of the area (115 million Euro). On October 12th, the Hungarian government passed a law through Parliament allowing the government to nationalize the company; they took over MAL the next day. Hungary’s state secretary for the environment, Zolton Illes, noted before the seizure that, “the Hungarian government will support all the activities of the company, will stand behind this company, to keep its 6,000 workplaces in that region, and also to keep this alumina processing activity”. Also on this date, the director of MAL–Zoltán Bakonyi–along with several other employees, were arrested and charged with “criminal negligence leading to a public catastrophe”.
Cleanup and construction from the flood cost the Hungarian government (and the country’s taxpayers) over $166 million (2011). 112 new houses were built across the three towns and many of the remaining 300 families displaced by the disaster chose to purchase used homes (125) or cash compensation (80). In total, over 53,000 truckloads of sludge was removed from the nearby fields between the villages.
“His mother, living just down the road, drowned in the flood. Her body was found days later in a fishing pond belonging to another of her sons, Jozsef.The Associated Press. 2011. “Hungary Rebuilds Towns Destroyed by Toxic Waste.” Deseret News. Available here.
Jozsef Fuchs’ Kolontár home was spared in the flood, but he lost much of his livelihood. The still-high toxicity of the pond water makes it unsuitable for fish farming and since the woods surrounding the pond were either destroyed by the sludge or cut down during the cleanup efforts, its attractiveness for weekend anglers has all but disappeared.
‘No one wants to come fishing here anymore,’ said Jozsef Fuchs, 58. ‘I have no use for the pond. It was beautiful, but now it could just as well be a desert… I was born in one of the houses that was demolished and my mother’s body was found at the end of my fishing pond,’ Fuchs said. ‘I want to stay here and I’m probably going to die here. But in the meantime, I still need to make a living.'”
In 2013, a Hungarian court ordered MAL to liquidate. However, the company remains the owner of the storage facility near Ajka (although not as area of containment today as the waste has changed to the more technologically advanced drying method). In 2016, Bakonyi and fourteen other employees were acquitted of all charges. On December 13th, 2019, a higher court reversed the decision of the lower court, sentencing the former CEO to four years in prison, as well as the former technical director of the company to a three year sentence.
10 Years Later
Where to start? Devecser and the Search for the Red Trees
Our search for the red trees of Hungary began in Devecser. As noted above, while the flood is commonly known as the Ajka red mud disaster, this designation is due to the location of the plant, an area right outside the city of Ajka. After researching the impact of the sludge on the nearby villages–and scouring old blog posts and Google Maps Street View–I guessed that most likely the trees we were searching for would be somewhere in Devecser, as much of Kolontár was completely destroyed by the flood. The trees from the pictures of the disaster were also in a heavily wooded area, which looking at a map of the path of the red sludge, was a type of landscape closer to Devecser’s.
A blogger noted that red trees were located near a playground. Searching through images uploaded to Google Maps, I saw that a red-ish tree was located in a large park near the castle in 2017. Armed with a starting point and potential location, my friend and I parked at the gas station at one side of the park and walked the entire length toward the town’s castle.
We thought we noticed some red in these tree trunks, but nothing like the photos from 2010. Were we in the right place? Devecser’s homes were also absent of the tell-tale sign of the sludge–the red marker along the walls of the houses.
After making our way through the park toward the entrance of the castle, we stumbled on a memorial shrouded by trees. If we weren’t here specifically searching for impacts of the red mud we could have missed the painting and its significance altogether.
An informational display is located on the other side–near the entrance to the castle–but again, we would have missed it without traveling to this large park for this specific purpose. The display noted that the tree trunks were cleaned by volunteers and college students and the topsoil in the area was also replaced. The park was completely redone in the summer of 2014; over 140,000 plants were planted, including 176 trees that replaced the “felled” ones.
Okay–Let’s Drive to Ajka!
Thankful for a fellow adventuring friend always down for a good investigational hunt, Heather and I then decided to drive up to the city of Ajka, less than 10 kilometers from Devecser. We guessed that the containment reservoir may still be intact, as we had discovered a number of structures still standing in Hungary even after disaster–we just wandered around the nearby Soviet Ghost Town of Szentkirályszabadja after all–and found what we thought may be MAL’s reservoir.
We parked and I wandered closer–the height of this structure meant it HAD to be the number ten containment reservoir right? I snapped a few pictures but with signs everywhere stating “TILOS” (forbidden!) I didn’t push my luck. Workers were moving sediment and other materials so I also didn’t want to disturb them. This activity was also confirmed by visitors to the location in 2015.
Let’s Just See What We Find in Kolontár:
We then turned around in Ajka and drove back toward Devecser. As we passed the enormous structure again, we guessed that this had to be the MAL reservoir–geographically it made sense–but without signage we couldn’t be 100% sure. Like the park, this area underwent a massive overhaul of environmental mitigation.
Without a real plan in Kolontár, we chose to just drive around the small village. I knew that two streets were destroyed by the sludge, so we kept our eyes out for new houses that may have been built to replace them. Maybe this is it? we kept asking each other. We saw a church peeking through the treetops and Heather decided to drive in that direction.
From the road we saw the memorial to the Ajka red sludge disaster. Located diagonally from the church, this memorial sits next to the train tracks and is entirely alone in its surroundings. This house was completely destroyed by red sludge and is now a memorial to the lives destroyed by the flood.
We walked toward the train tracks, across the Torna and over a bridge.
We quietly left Kolontár, still in awe that we stumbled upon this memorial, a preserved lunchtime snapshot of October 4th in the Hungarian countryside.
Recovery & Future Concerns:
While Devecser has made commitments and sustainable energy progress, many survivors of the red sludge note that they have yet to receive settlements and many of the newer houses have a number of construction issues. The disaster caused a drop in home values and many cannot afford to move elsewhere. The main sources of income for this area have disintegrated along with the flood; the MAL facility is now closed and a ban on selling produce here was implemented. The population of both villages has dropped and many residents state they still suffer from the effects of the disaster both physically and mentally. The Hungarian government has instructed survivors to use the courts for retribution and many have pursued that route.
“’Healing is so complex,’ Tili said. ‘Those who lost loved ones will never forget. But those who did not have mostly got past the memories by now. We have had a psychotherapist on the scene for a year. Lots of people have visited her.'”Dunai, Marton. 2011. “Hungary Villages Heal Slowly from Red Sludge Spill.” Reuters. Available here.
Now that the visible aspects of the disaster have faded, how will the injustices suffered by the survivors be mended? Previously available jobs are now non-existent. Lower property values and less population overall make owning a business difficult. The increasingly growing sentiment against the historically marginalized Roma communities further compounds the injustices faced by the survivors of the Ajka red sludge. The amount of anti-Roma rhetoric has only increased since the 2010 disaster. In 2012, nearly 1,000 white supremacists marched through the small village, throwing rocks into the homes of Romani residents, and shouting: “You are going to die here”. After a number of Roma families re-located to Devecser after the flood, a dispute between families ignited the march. The same mayor who promised sustainable energy also stated that “what happened to some [of the Roma population during the Ajka red flood] was in their best interest”.
“Anyone calling it ‘golden sludge,’ I’d be happy to change places with them,’ Horvath [his wife, Eva, was hospitalized with burns across 70 percent of her body] says. ‘Let them stand in it three-four hours and experience the same pain. We’ll have scars the rest of our lives. People already see our brown skin; now they’ll see spots and think we have an exotic disease, too.'”Michael J. Jordan. 2011. “Roma in the Red Sludge.” The Mantle. Available here.
Although Covid-19 hit the country hard (at one time in 2021 Hungary had the highest death rate in the world) with lower access to healthcare, greater likelihood to live in communal spaces (often without running water) and distrust toward the Hungarian government due to their anti-Roma sentiments in the past, Romani populations were ravaged by the virus: “Just about every family got it. …People you see riding their bikes one week are in hospital the next and you order flowers for their funerals the third.”
In addition to localized concerns, many fear that the Ajka red sludge is just one of a ticking time-bomb of future problems in Eastern Europe; many warn that without proper waste disposal (and the funds to do so) there could easily be a number of events similar to the Ajka alumna disaster in the future. The WWF estimates the number of potential sites could be in the hundreds:
“Experts identify inadequate enforcement of inadequate regulations as a key issue in a string of spills in the area, of which two most serious were the Hungary mud disaster and an earlier cyanide spill from a tailings dam in Romania. ‘Our society expects that the facilities still in use are being exploited correctly and safety procedures are being observed. In reality this is not the case’, said Daniel Popov, a toxics expert from the CEE Bankwatch Network in Bulgaria.”World Widlife Fund. 2011. “Little action apparent on toxic tailings six months after Hungary red mud disaster.” WWF Online. Available here.
“I believe the only positive development of the spill is to draw attention to the importance of such environmental ‘time-bombs’ hidden in the backyard of former communist countries. It is crucial that better environmental inspection standards are implemented by authorities to prevent similar disasters in the future.” — Dr. Szabolcs Lengyel
Reading: Denmark Vesey: The Buried History of America’s Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It (David Roberston)
Watching: Loki (Disney+)
Listening: Un(re)solved (Frontline PBS)
The Associated Press. 2011. “Hungary Rebuilds Towns Destroyed by Toxic Waste.” Deseret News. Available here.
BBC News. 2020. “Hungary Battles to Stem Torrent of Toxic Sludge.” BBC News. Available here.
Cain, Phil. 2012. “Hungary Nationalists Whip Up Anti-Roma Feelings.” BBC News. Available here.
ClientEarth Communications. 2020. “Two Recent Judgements in Hungary Clarify the Environmental Liability Regime.” ClientEarth. Available here.
Dunai, Marton. 2011. “Hungary Villages Heal Slowly from Red Sludge Spill.” Reuters. Available here.
Environmental Justice Atlas. 2014. “Red Mud Disaster Kolontár-Devecser, Hungary.” Environmental Justice Atlas. Available here.
Jordan, Michael K. 2011. “Roma in the Red Sludge.” The Mantle. Available here.
Kátai-Urbán, Lajos and Zoltán Cséplı. 2010. “Disaster in the Ajka Red Sludge Reservoir.” The Sixth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents: The Hague, Available here.
Lengyei, Szabolcs. 2010. “Hungarian Red Sludge Spill — Three Weeks Later.” The Freshwater Blog. Available here.
Moseman, Andrew. 2010. “Hungary’s Toxic Spill Reaches the Danube, but River May Escape Harm.” Discover. Available here.
Reuters. 2010. “Red Sludge Company to Resume Production.” Radio France Internationale. Available here.
Reuters. 2021. “‘Falling Like Flies’: Hungary’s Roma Community Plead for Covid-19 Help.” VOA News. Available here.
Rosenthal, Elisabeth. 2010. “Hungary’s Red Sludge Spill: The Media and the Eco-Disaster.” Yale Environment 360 (Yale School of Environment). Available here.
Taylor, Allen. 2011. “A Flood of Red Sludge, One Year Later.” The Atlantic. Available here.
Thorpe, Nick. 2010. “Toxic Sludge Carpets Homes in Hungary.” BBC News. Available here.
Toth, Janos I. 2013. “Key Actors of the Red Sludge Disaster in Hungary.” in Confronting Ecological and Economic Collapse. Routledge: 2013. Available here.
Turi, David, Jozsef Pusztai, and Istvan Nyari. 2013. “Causes and Cir Causes and Circumstances of Red Mud Reservoir Failure In 2010 at MAL Zrt Factory Site in Ajka, Hungary.” International Conference on Case Histories in Geotechnical Engineering (2013). Available here.
World Wide Fund for Nature. 2011. “Little Action Apparent on Toxic Tailings Six Months after Hungary Red Mud Disaster.” World Wide Fund for Nature. Available here.