After the sludge: Rebuilding Hungary's towns

A house damaged by the sludge
Image caption A red stain on the last house standing in Kolontar shows how high the sludge reached.

Last October a toxic waste spill from an aluminium factory swallowed homes in Western Hungary in what was the country's worst environmental disaster. Nick Thorpe visited the town for One Planet from the BBC World Service to see what had become of its residents.

There is nothing to photograph beyond the stream in Kolontar anymore, just weeds and puddles and a track down the middle that turns right, then peters out on a piece of wasteground beside a ditch. It is astonishing how short a road appears when all the houses are gone. All that is left of Kossuth Street and Mill Street.

Erzsebet and Zoltan Juhasz walk down this way sometimes, to see where their home used to be. They even found a tomato plant, growing among the tall weeds where their garden was.

"I dug it up and replanted it in my new garden and now it's full of fruit!" Erzsebet explains.

"It is the only light moment in a conversation about a subject which is still usually too painful to talk about - the moment when her 14-month-old daughter, Angyalka, was swept from her arms when a tidal wave of red sludge hit their house on 4 October last year.

As we speak in her new kitchen, another little girl, Dori, runs in, laughing hilariously, three years old, wanting to play. Seven-year-old Gergo comes in to listen solemnly to the grown-ups.

His father asks him to go out again - both he and Erzsebet are crying - as they tell their story. But the boy stays, and Dori plays, and outside 13-year-old Renata stands by the slide. And Erzsebet is expecting a new baby, a boy, in November.

"We've very grateful for all the help we received, from the Red Cross, from the Baptist charity, from the state too, for giving us this house. I mean, they didn't have to, did they? They could have waited for the aluminium company to pay up."

Instead, the missing half of Kolontar has been rebuilt in record time, 21 brand new houses on the highest ground in the village.

Promise kept

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban promised when he came here to oversee the evacuation of the village on 9 October that everyone would be fully compensated, everyone would get new homes or the cash equivalent.

Image caption Red sludge dredged from the village pond has been collected in reservoirs

And to everyone's surprise, the promise has been fulfilled, the houses are white and gleaming, each one slightly different, the woodwork is varnished, children are playing in the gardens again, and in the distance, Somlo Hill, Hungary's table mountain, stands firm as a rock, rising out of the summer haze.

"I wouldn't have wanted to move out of sight of that," laughs Endre Csipszer, jabbing his finger at the horizon. We are standing in Devecser now, further down the valley from Kolontar.

Here there is a bigger housing estate, 87 new houses, each with flowers in the window, and workmen carrying new sofas and beds and kitchen furniture in through the door. "Look at all this... some even call it the golden sludge now."

"We never dreamed of living in a new house, one like this," says his partner Tereza, showing us from room to room. A few pieces of furniture they managed to salvage from the old house stand in one room. Otherwise, everything is new.

By the ruins of the post office in Devecser, we meet Tamas Toldi, the mayor. The post office is one of the last of nearly 300 buildings to be knocked down in his town, their walls and foundations fatally weakened by the caustic, alkaline waters of the disaster.

"This area in front of us will be turned into a beautiful memorial park," says the mayor.

"There'll be lots of park benches, playgrounds, fishermen fishing in the little ponds there. Behind that there'll be a sportsground with a football pitch. And beyond that, a new light industrial park where we hope to develop renewable energy and create jobs for the town."

Renewable energy, he stresses. "People here have had enough environmental destruction. It's very important for them that any jobs created here are not at the cost of more damage to the environment."

Compensation battle

In the fields between Kolontar and Devecser, the government commissioner for the agricultural rehabilitation of the area, Csaba Szabo, proudly shows us the maize crop, tall and dark green, growing in the middle of a valley at the centre of the path of the red mud.

Image caption Csaba Szabo is responsible for restoring agriculture in the region

"We had originally planned for the corn to be burnt as biomass, but the analyses show that it is safe to eat."

So it will be fed as fodder to the cattle, after all. Nearby, there is a plantation of fast-growing poplars, in an area just before Devecser where the red mud once stood deepest.

Here, all the top soil was removed and replaced, and the poplars will be harvested in just two years' time, as an energy crop.

People speak of the remarkable regenerative power of nature, and of the unexpected speed and generosity of the state, in a clean-up and rebuilding operation that has cost over $150m (£90.5m) so far, and still continues. But the government remains determined to get that money back from MAL Zrt, the aluminium company.

"For the company to be able to pay compensation to all the victims of this disaster, it is in our interest for them to continue production, to continue generating an income," says Gyorgy Bakondy, the head of the Hungarian disaster management authority, who supervised the company until last month.

Image caption Kolontar railway station was once the heart of the now desolate town

He also oversaw a switch from wet, red-sludge producing technology, to dry disposal of the waste.

Caught in a pincer movement of criminal claims, civil claims and the prospect of a massive fine for destroying the environment, the company is involved in discussions behind closed doors with the government.

So might there be an out-of-court settlement? I ask Zoltan Illes, secretary of state for the environment.

"There might be, easily," he replies.

And if there is, that is likely to happen soon - before the first anniversary of the disaster.

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