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.

Michael J. Jordan
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.
AFP/Getty Images/Newscom/File
Rescue workers walking on a street covered in red sludge in Devecser, 150 km (93 miles) west of Budapes, last October.

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.

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.

He won, and this summer received his cash. Another milestone: he was the first local to win restitution.

“Of course I wouldn’t have done any of this if I didn’t believe in the system,” says Konkoly, whose Jobbik party heroes speak as if they’d reimpose a one-party police state, if given the chance. “I believed in it. I believed in my lawyer. But it should have worked this way, or else we aren’t living in a legal state.”

Signs of progress

At first glance, there’s little indication of progress in Hungary. The economic and political climates have sunk to new lows. Brussels has sparred with Budapest over Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s bulldozing of dissent. Many Hungarians speak regretfully of what’s become of their promising independence. Some young educated families whisper about ways to emigrate.

As such, grassroot demands for justice in the sludge zone do little to cheer liberal activists. Istvan Hegedus, who was a young anti-Communist dissident in the late 1980s and is today chairman of the Hungarian Europe Society, notes that catastrophe-hit Devecser and Kolontar may be less a pattern than an aberration, where “people get together and react, using legal instruments.”

“The general picture is still not very positive,” says Mr. Hegedus. “What’s more true is that ordinary people feel they have no influence against government, or local administration, or big business. We would have hoped that after 20 years, it would be more common that people learn how to use democratic tools against government or business. But here, everything is dominated by partisan politics.”

Nonetheless, Hegedus and others don’t dispute that the system is radically different from Communist rule.

In the old days, the courts didn’t exist to protect the little guy as part of a system of checks and balances. Instead, the courts – like the media and police – were essential pillars of the dictatorship itself, designed to protect and prop up the Communist regime. To challenge that authority could get someone imprisoned – or worse. So the masses were conditioned to keep their head down and mouth shut.

Akos Nemeth, a Devecser-born lawyer representing 130 hometown residents in claims against MAL, sees a society today more aware of its human rights – and, thanks to Western culture and the information age, increasingly litigious.

“I think Hungarians are educated about their rights, but they forget what they have to do with them,” he continues. “After what happened here, it’s really good to see people take legal steps to protect themselves.”

One of Mr. Nemeth’s clients, Karoly Horvath, is set to move into his new home, which is being built by the state. But he’s suing for the severe burns his wife and daughter received, and for the material losses – including 25 years’ worth of fishing equipment he used to supplement his family’s daily diet.

More idealistically, Horvath says he wants “someone to stand in front of us, look into our eyes, and say sorry for the 57 days we had to take painkillers six times a day, and got only one hour of sleep.”

Gyongyi Szijarto emerges from her new home in Kolontar, built in the image of a tidy American suburb, but still nurturing a deep sense of loss: her entire collection of family photos, swallowed by the sludge. With her grown son Attila standing by her side, Ms. Szijarto laments, “When I have grandchildren, I won’t be able to show them what their father looked like during his childhood.”

The risks of suing

People like Szijarto were forced into a sticky choice. In the flood’s wake, the media revealed that five separate government ministries had previously inspected and approved the safety of MAL’s reservoir. The company had friends in high places, across both sides of the aisle. The Orban government, though, quickly blamed MAL – the owner was arrested, briefly – disbursed cash for damages, and pushed to build new homes as quick as possible. By summer’s end, most were already inhabited. But cash-strapped Budapest made clear there would be no further compensation. For anything more, take it up with MAL.

Szijarto, like a game-show contestant torn by the risk of what’s behind Curtain No. 2, could take the one-time payout, rebuild their home, and try to sue for more, or renounce their claims and roll the dice this government would be caring and competent enough to build them a modest new home.

“It was really hard,” she says. “But we thought taking this house was the safest choice.”

For the mayor of Devecser, though, the decision not to sue is far more political.

Tamas Toldi was elected mayor the day before the red sludge hit. It decimated city-owned property and services. Yet not only is Mr. Toldi brand-new to his job, he’s also a member of Fidesz: the prime minister’s party, which now controls an overwhelming two-thirds of the parliament. Friends and foes alike note that Orban doesn’t tolerate even internal dissent too kindly.

Toldi admits to being tempted, early on, to also hire a lawyer and sue the state. But then Budapest took action, and the retired farming engineer says that was enough to satisfy him – for now.

“The government responded exactly the way I wanted them to,” he says. “I have no intention to criticize the government when here I have so many serious battles of my own, every day.”

It’s unclear what cut, if any, the many victims will get of the $647 million fine, which is four times what the government said it had already spent on the cleanup. Regardless, Toldi says he must tread gently with a furious, traumatized population for whom no repayment could ever be enough.

For his part, Konkoly says suing was a matter of conscience. It’s paid off in other ways, too. With his new reputation as a man who gets things done, Toldi hired him to join the city’s rebuilding efforts.

“I asked myself, ‘Have I done everything within my power and ability to do something about my home?” says Konkoly. “I had to try in court, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to go on with my life. It was clear to me I had the right to try.”

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