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One year after Hungary's 'Red Sludge' disaster, signs of democratic progress

Since last year's 'Red Sludge' disaster, Hungary's worst environmental tragedy, Hungarians have used the tools of democracy to seek restitution – a rarity in this former Communist state.

By Michael J. JordanCorrespondent / October 4, 2011

Jozsef Konkoly, a retired soldier, is more than a face of Hungary's red-sludge victims. He has become an inspiration for hundreds of other ordinary folks in Devecser and Kolontar now in the process of filing suits against Maygar Aluminum.

Michael J. Jordan

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Devecser, Hungary

On Oct. 3, 2010, Jozsef Konkoly finished installing a new heating system in his home in the Hungarian town of Devescer, in advance of winter. Overall, he’d invested a small fortune on renovations.

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The next day, red sludge cascaded through his windows.

Mr. Konkoly is just one face of Hungary’s deadliest ecological tragedy, the toxic “Red Sludge” calamity that struck this small Central European nation last October. But one year later, he’s also become a rare – and unlikely – symbol of Hungarian democracy-in-action.

Konkoly successfully sued the factory that was responsible for the disaster, becoming an inspiration for hundreds of other ordinary folks in Devecser and Kolontar to do the same. Victims include not only those who lost homes and are now moving into new, government-built homes, but the unscathed neighbors who saw their property value collapse overnight.

At the same time, Konkoly and fellow plaintiffs illuminate a stark truth about Hungary today, two decades into the transition from Communist dictatorship to capitalist democracy: despite growing disillusion and revisionist nostalgia for a ruthless ancien régime, democracy and rule of law are slowly taking root in these post-authoritarian lands.

On Oct. 4, the wall of a Communist-era reservoir of aluminum waste crumbled, releasing some 184 million gallons of alkaline mud across 15 square miles of farmland and neighborhoods. First it slammed the village of Kolontar, drowning 10 people, including a toddler. Then it swamped the downtown of Devecser, contaminating hundreds of homes – including Konkoly’s – and seriously burning scores of locals.

The caustic muck also killed off fish and fauna in the Marcal, which flows into Europe’s second-largest river – the Danube. Greenpeace decried it one of the continent’s worst environmental disasters of “the past 20 or 30 years.” And the Hungarian state has matched the “unprecedented” damage with unprecedented punishment of the company, Magyar Aluminum (MAL). On Sept. 14, the Ministry of Rural Development announced a fine of $647 million that may force its partial nationalization.

Justice within the system

When the wave of scarlet mud oozed in to Konkoly’s house, he wasn’t home, but watched it unfold from higher ground.

“In that first second, I could have killed somebody,” the retired soldier says, tensing his biceps. As a vocal supporter of Jobbik – a far-right party that rails against, among other things, post-Communist “democracy” – Konkoly had avenues for pursuing anti-establishment retribution.

But instead, Konkoly demanded accountability via the democratic path. He hired a lawyer and became the first local resident to take MAL to court. He filed for 20 million Hungarian forints (roughly $94,000) in damages, including 3 million for “moral compensation” – half a million just for the loss of family photos.

Konkoly exploited another pillar of democracy – the media. He was willingly interviewed, which presumably stepped up pressure on the courts to defend the common man.

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