Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Revenge of the Sludge

One year later, Hungary is still reeling from its worst-ever environmental catastrophe.

ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images
ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images
ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images

DEVECSER, Hungary—Imre Vagi, 56, doesn't scare easily. Even when facing a flood of biblical proportions. 

Vagi has scraped for survival ever since Hungary's communist regime crumbled in 1989. As industries collapsed, he was laid off in the early 1990s by Magyar Aluminium (MAL), a huge state-owned employer in the western half of this small Central European country.

Many folks in Veszprem County are like the stocky Vagi, with his unshaven face and long sideburns, and trace their roots to the peasants who harvested holdings of the nobility, on undulating fields of potatoes, corn, wheat, even strawberries. The Catholic Church claimed the first portion; nobles, the second; and the miserable souls who'd actually picked the stuff, the last.

DEVECSER, Hungary—Imre Vagi, 56, doesn’t scare easily. Even when facing a flood of biblical proportions. 

Vagi has scraped for survival ever since Hungary’s communist regime crumbled in 1989. As industries collapsed, he was laid off in the early 1990s by Magyar Aluminium (MAL), a huge state-owned employer in the western half of this small Central European country.

Many folks in Veszprem County are like the stocky Vagi, with his unshaven face and long sideburns, and trace their roots to the peasants who harvested holdings of the nobility, on undulating fields of potatoes, corn, wheat, even strawberries. The Catholic Church claimed the first portion; nobles, the second; and the miserable souls who’d actually picked the stuff, the last.

Agriculture has been a way of life and mode of survival for centuries, yet as the communist system disintegrated, party-run farms were also in crisis. Nevertheless, Vagi tapped into his farming genetics and in 1995 bought his own plot of five sandy hectares. By last fall, he was tilling up to 400 hectares of mostly grain, cereal, and sunflower — an impressive feat of post-communist entrepreneurship.

Then, the "red sludge" hit.

On Oct. 4, 2010, MAL’s communist-era but still active reservoir of toxic waste ruptured, unleashing a crimson wave of 184 million gallons of the caustic byproduct of aluminum production. The noxious goop washed over a swath of 15 square miles, including Vagi’s land.

The first to be walloped was the village of Kolontar; 10 people drowned in the alkaline muck, including a toddler. The torrent then splashed across the town of Devecser, burning scores of victims, poisoning hundreds of homes, and killing off most of the plant and animal life in the Marcal — a tributary to Europe’s second-largest river, the Danube.

It was Hungary’s worst-ever chemical accident: one part Chernobyl, one part Pompeii. Greenpeace went so far as to brand it one of Europe’s worst ecological disasters "in the last 20 or 30 years." By this July, the government said it had already spent $160 million on the clean-up. The calamity also highlighted the existence of many other communist-era, ecological "ticking time bombs" among the new EU member states. The World Wildlife Fund says Bulgaria alone has some 20 alumina tailings dams holding millions of gallons of waste produced during ore separation; and millions of tons of toxic metals are buried underground, near rivers.

On Sept. 14, still reeling from the scope of the contamination and cleanup, the Hungarian government pronounced its penalty for MAL: a $647 million fine, calculated at roughly four times the government’s cleanup costs. The amount is so staggering that the company, which reportedly provides some 6,000 jobs in the area, may be obliged to nationalize part of its operations.

Although local officials erred on the side of caution by announcing in the flood’s wake that "agriculture is dead for 10 years" in the areas affected — specifically banning consumable crops — Vagi wasted no time wallowing in self-pity. He plowed through five feet of the lethal sludge and tainted topsoil from 20 of his best hectares and planted seeds for an imported poplar he calls "energy summer." He’ll harvest the trees every two years, once they reach 5 or 6 meters tall, and then sell them to a factory that will grind them up for burning as fuel.

"We’re not looking back," says Vagi, amid his newborn, knee-high saplings. "The sludge didn’t take my home, but it took my land and my work — a lot of work. My blood drives me to do this."

In some ways, Vagi is more than just a gritty farmer overcoming adversity at Sludge Zero. He’s a glimpse of Hungarian pluck and perseverance amid the gloom of pessimism that pervades the country today.

National self-confidence has been rattled, thanks to a sputtering economy, mounting joblessness, rapacious corruption, and a vicious political climate that have not only fueled far-right sentiments, but sent Hungary tumbling from Central European front-runner to post-communist laggard. Hungary is saddled with the highest debt in the region, and its currency is one of the most vulnerable.

Yet today, as more flood evacuees return to gleaming, government-built homes in Devecser and Kolontar, Vagi is just one of many resilient Hungarians in the sludge zone, hoisting themselves off the canvas.

Hundreds, for example, are filing suits against MAL for physical injuries, personal losses, or simply for property values that nose-dived. It’s a striking phenomenon, given how only two decades ago, under brutish communist rule, it was unthinkable for ordinary citizens to hold party elites accountable for their misdeeds.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Devecser, Tamas Toldi, speaks today of plans for his town of 5,000, which is 100 miles southwest of Budapest, in terms that Hollywood would love, as if poised to play the comeback kid.

In his downtown office, a stone’s throw from where the toxic sludge oozed to a halt, Toldi talks excitedly about creating jobs by attracting investors in bioethanol and other forms of alternative energy — while also wooing more traditional industries such as farm-equipment manufacturers. He says he’ll also reinvigorate vocational training to stem the tide of young people leaving home in search of work in bigger cities, with new centers to teach them how to be carpenters, locksmiths, or mechanics.

In Hungary, where unemployment in some rural areas runs as high as 50 percent — fueling interethnic hatred between ethnic Hungarians and their even poorer neighbors, the minority Roma — Toldi trumpets the opportunity to write a happy ending for his battered town.

"Devecser was sentenced to death," the mayor says over a morning espresso. "Some joked that we should develop a sister-city relationship with Chernobyl. But we think it’s too early. Now we want to become famous for something else."

That isn’t to say no ugliness lingers.

Lajos Kepli, chairman of the parliamentary committee investigating the accident, floated a new theory in September: The spill was no accident. Kepli, a leading member of the conspiracy-minded, far-right Jobbik party, wants the state to probe whether an explosion caused the rupture — a deliberate act of sabotage. He didn’t suggest any possible motive, however.

But the flood has spawned a recurring cultural theme — envy. Some bitter locals, stuck in their old homes, chide the hapless-evacuees-turned-new-homeowners, especially the despised Roma, as profiting from a "golden sludge."

"No one was jealous when the sludge first happened, but now people are jealous," says Momila Steszli, a young mother who lost her home in Kolontar. She just moved into a new government-funded house pleasingly styled after a cookie-cutter American suburb, with potted flowers out front. "But I don’t care about those people," she continues. "Our situation can only be understood by those who went through it."

International relief workers warned Toldi and others that this phenomenon would arise: While catastrophe initially unites its victims, the mood eventually turns divisive, as victims focus on who got what.

Jozsef Konkoly, a Devecser resident who lost his home and was set to receive a new one, notes that some residents, absurdly, now "wish their homes had been hit by red sludge."

Early on, the Budapest authorities made clear that building new homes would likely be the ceiling of their compensation efforts. Any further restitution, they said, would have to be pried loose from the aluminum company. So Konkoly, testing the newly democratic system and rule of law, roared into action: He became the first to take MAL to court.

"I wanted to cause harm to whoever harmed me," says the retired soldier, sporting a crew cut and beefy forearms. "I tried to think about what I could do, what was possible."

His $94,000 payout this summer inspired scores of other plaintiffs. With the one-year anniversary now approaching, though, it’s not yet clear how much of the government’s $647 million fine will be allocated for victims, if any at all.

Vagi, though, says he won’t trouble himself with that. Nor does he "have the time or energy" to deal with any lawyers, judges, or paperwork. Moreover, Vagi doesn’t buy into what he sees as hype about hazards to consumable crops and the government’s outright ban on their production in the sludge zone. Besides his hectares — and those he tills for other landowners — he owns cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens.

Last October, the government immediately tried to reassure the public that the sludge wasn’t poisonous, while the Hungarian Academy of Sciences weighed in that it posed no serious risk to the environment — a view later supported by the journal Science. Just last week, Greenpeace announced that its testing indicated the soil toxicity was "lower than feared," though the state of the groundwater was still unknown.

"I’m not afraid of health risks," says Vagi. "I worked in the factory, and my wife worked in their laboratory for 20 years. If there were metals in the sludge, they’d interact with other chemicals in the soil. I’d even grow grain and feed it to my family. Just like I’d feed the corn to my animals — and eat the meat."

Vagi’s sights are squarely on the future. Ignoring the devastation around him and undeterred by Europe’s economic turmoil, he talks like a 21st-century businessman. New equipment is on his mind.

"You can only compete on the market with the latest models," says Vagi, before climbing into a pickup truck covered by a fine layer of pink dust — residue of the red sludge. "You must invest, invest, invest."

Michael J. Jordan is foreign correspondent based in Lesotho.

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