How a Hungarian Mayor Saved His Small Town from Environmental Catastrophe
On Toldi Tamás's first day as mayor of Devecser, Hungary, he woke up to a deluge of polluted red mud rapidly flowing through the streets, sweeping away buildings and severely burning the townspeople. The next year would be tough.
Photo by Sean Williams
On the top floor of a grand old building that used to house the Devecser post office, there’s a museum devoted to the worst environmental disaster in Hungarian history. Hardly anyone ever visits the place, the lights are usually off, and there’s no heat, but one cold December morning I strolled among its dusty glass cases with Toldi Tamás, Devecser’s mayor. Inside the cases are the sorts of things you’d find in someone’s house—a VCR, a Bible, teddy bears. All of the items are caked in the carmine residue of a weird wave of sludge that in 2010 killed ten people, injured 150, and left hundreds in the region homeless.
Tamás paused to examine some blown-up press clippings on the wall from publications like Le Monde, the New York Times, and the Guardian. During the hectic days of the crisis, he told me, journalists would flank him as he walked up the steps of the hall while taking calls from his frightened constituents, some of whom had burn marks the size of dinner plates after coming into contact with the sludge.
We went up to the roof and took in the view: On one side we could see the elegant town of about 5,000, where baroque halls daubed blue, yellow, and pink sat beside drab Soviet-era apartment blocks along winding cobbled streets. Beyond the old buildings were the 87 new eggshell-colored houses that Tamás had ordered built from scratch in just eight months. Looking the other way, we could see a vast park where dozens of homes used to stand before the red sludge came. Some were wiped away by the flood; others were so badly damaged that they had to be bulldozed in the days following the disaster. The devastation, now consigned to memory save for the odd patch of rose-tinted soil, occurred in a single day. It also happened to be Tamás’s first official day on the job. He woke up that morning to find himself mayor of a city where people were drowning beneath two feet of polluted water that was rapidly flowing through the streets.
Tamás doesn’t seem like the kind of man who saved an entire town. With his thin, gray hair, waxed jacket, billowing scarf, and Chevron mustache, the 62-year-old resembles a cross between a rural party apparatchik and a geography teacher. Hungarians of his generation lived through a Communist regime where stray words could have serious consequences, which may at least partially explain his taciturn nature. Even while touring the museum that serves as a monument to his greatest accomplishment, the idea of heroism is completely lost on him. “You just do your duty,” he said of that time as we walked down the stairs. “It was madness here. I wanted it to be happy again, calm.”
The aftermath of the flood of toxic red sludge that hit Devecser, Hungary, on October 5, 2010, after a reservoir owned by an aluminum plant burst. Photo by Tomas Benedikovic/isifa/Getty Images
Devecser, located a two-hour drive from Hungary’s capital of Budapest, has long been an important strategic point, and it has been conquered over and over by a succession of empires. The Ottomans tried and failed to raze it seven times in the 16th century. It became a sleepy fiefdom under the heel of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During World War II, it was controlled by the Nazis before being overtaken by the Red Army.
Tamás was born under Soviet rule, in 1952, to a farmer father and a mother who worked at a meat factory. Devecser was a “great, fun place to grow up,” he told me, even though it was in the midst of an industrial tumult. Ajka, a nearby city of 30,000, was booming: Trees were being torn down, and giant prefab apartment blocks “grew from the ground like mushrooms.” The city was soon home to power plants and an aluminum factory that produced so much filthy red waste, from the bauxite-to-aluminum process, that in the 60s a giant reservoir had to be built just outside town to contain the toxic runoff (the stuff was so alkaline that it could cause skin burns on contact).
Meanwhile, Devecser “was left to the old people,” Tamás told me. “Houses were dilapidated, and there were no real prospects.” For fun, the townspeople would sit around a wireless and listen to Radio Free Europe—a welcome alternative to the crude propaganda pumped out daily by Hungary’s Soviet-backed politburo. “We were isolated and had to listen to a lot of crap,” Tamás said.
Tamás followed in his father’s footsteps and in the 60s, after attending college, joined a local state-owned agricultural firm. In the 80s, he was drafted into the Hungarian army for a stint in which 100 men were placed under his command. Rations were tight, and there was little to do; the men staved off “hard-worn boredom” by spending hours watching state-run television broadcasts. In the afternoons, when the officers left the barracks, they would climb to the top of the roof and reposition the TV antenna toward Austria. It was one of the few ways they could learn about life beyond the Iron Curtain.
The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and Hungary began to embrace capitalism. Tamás, by then an agricultural commissioner trading cattle with the West, bought a plot of land and established his own farm, which became wildly successful. In 1995, Ajka’s aluminum plant was privatized under Magyar Aluminium (MAL). It regularly inspected the reservoir, which was slowly filling up with red mud—after the disaster, a spokesman for the company would tell the media that the last appraisal of the facility showed “nothing untoward.”
Eventually Tamás ran for mayor. To hear him tell it, he was persuaded to enter the race by friends who were upset that the last two Devecser mayors had been Communists from other towns. Tamás, a local kid who had managed to garner the respect of the community, was temperamentally and politically conservative—in other words, the ideal candidate.
The race against incumbent László Holczinger was a close one: Voting ended at 6 PM on October 3, 2010, but Tamás didn’t find out he’d won until after midnight. Congratulatory toasts were made as the victory party carried over into daylight. Just hours later, the sludge came and washed the town away.
A dog covered in toxic sludge. Photo by Tomas Benedikovic/isifa/Getty Images
October 4, 2010, was an uncommonly bright Monday for autumn. Having celebrated until the wee hours, Tamás slept in until 10 AM. His wife, Irma, had already left to teach her math class up the street, but he still had plenty of time to clean himself up before his 2 PM inauguration at town hall.
He never made it. A little after midday, Tamás was overwhelmed by phone calls. His voicemail was full of messages from virtually everyone he knew, all of them frantic about some sort of flood. It was then that he first looked out the window: A tidal wave of rust-colored slime was rushing down the street, taking cars, furniture, and people with it. As the slurry ripped through downtown, residents caught in the river were gasping for air. Cries rang out from people clinging to anything they could get their hands on. The dam keeping the red mud in MAL’s reservoir had burst, and a million cubic meters of hazardous waste was spilling out into the surrounding towns and villages. Devecser was among the hardest hit, and Tamás suddenly had a crisis of immense proportions on his hands.
“It was a busy first day,” he told me.
The townspeople had had no warning before the river of what looked like blood surged through Devecser. Homes were filled with foul ooze or wrecked by the force of the flood. People were forced to climb onto their roofs. Pets, vehicles, and even children were washed away by the red mud—Angyalka Juhász, a toddler from the nearby village of Kolontár, drowned when the sludge smashed through the walls of her house and ripped her away from her mother, Erzsebét.
“Our family is cursed,” Erzsebét told Bulgarian journalist Dimiter Kenarov. She had already lost one young son when he was hit by a train, and now her entire family was covered in huge alkali burns from exposure to the mud. Hundreds of her neighbors were suffering the same painful sores.
The messages Tamás was receiving on his phone were getting grimmer by the minute. “There was a huge panic,” he told me. “People didn’t know what to do. They were running all around like poisoned mice. There was a chaos of communication.”
Tamás quickly sprang into action: After calling Irma to advise her to stay at school, on higher ground, with the kids, he rang up old friends from the farming business who owned heavy machinery—tractors, diggers, dozers—that could be used to pull people from danger.
“I asked them to go rescue people from their windows and rooftops,” he told me. His own house was being pummeled by the mud as he made his calls, but it survived, unlike the homes around it, thanks to its six-inch concrete foundation.
Within hours the cameras from international news stations showed up and introduced the world to Devecser. At the same time, MAL was going on a PR offensive to claim that the red mud wasn’t dangerous. “It’s an innocuous material,” CEO Zoltán Bakonyi told one reporter. (He later apologized for the comment.) Even if that were true—which it wasn’t—it would have provided scant comfort for those who had lost their homes or worse.
Anyone who had been affected by the flood knew that the substance that had flowed through the streets was anything but innocuous. People who had waded through the red mud started getting painful burns on their legs and arms, sores that took a long time to heal. Peter Pallinki, a butcher from Ajka, had climbed onto his roof when the mud slammed into his living room, and a year afterward he was still nursing the gaping wounds on his knee that had put him out of work. “Painkillers are my breakfast now,” he told Kenarov.
For three nights after the flood Tamás barely slept; at one point he stayed up for 24 hours straight. He was kept busy coordinating with officials in neighboring towns to provide refuge for the hundreds who were displaced. While he worked, he answered constant phone calls and dealt with reporters throwing microphones in his face wherever he went. The town, which had been under his leadership for less than a week, was caked in poisonous red mud, and the relatives of people who were dying in the hospital from God-knows-what wanted to know how, in the 21st century, no one could figure out that a concrete wall had been about to break. Tamás didn’t know what to tell them. He was tired, angry, and inundated with too many requests to handle. Irma worried about his health but made sure to keep calm around him.
“Without her,” he told me, “I could not bear anything.”
Tamás got a second phone for calls from the press, and it rang day and night. The Hungarian government sent in more than 500 policemen and soldiers to maintain control of the village, direct traffic, and prepare to evict people from damaged homes (in the end, all the townsfolk left their houses peacefully). A pontoon bridge was thrown across Kolontár’s Marcal River to replace a bridge that had collapsed in the slide. Plaster and other chemicals were poured into the river to stem the tide, extinguishing its ecosystem overnight.
Devecser looked like a postapocalyptic version of Stepford. As the days passed and the mud dried, it blew into the air and enveloped Devecser in a scarlet sandstorm. People began to have trouble breathing. Tamás waded through the mud, coordinating every aspect of the cleanup and rebuilding process. Sometimes he’d forget which phone was which—reporters were told about the post office, and locals got information about the blueprints that were being sketched for a new housing project across town. He soon slipped into a pattern of sleeping from 11 PM to 2 AM, which lasted a year. He had no choice—quitting wasn’t an option. “I never really seriously thought of giving up and turning my back on anyone,” Tamás said.
Within weeks of the disaster, Tamás, working with famed architect Imre Makovecz, had drawn up plans for 87 new homes for those still without houses. They would be completed within eight months, using nothing but local materials. Some people who lived in damaged houses that had survived the initial flood weren’t sure the new homes would be constructed and chose to stay. Three years later, Tamás told me, they’re angry with him and bitter that they’re stuck in their red-mud-stained homes. “They didn’t believe I could do it,” Tamás said. “That’s tough luck. But I have to make tough decisions.” Today, when the mayor sees some of those people in the street, they won’t make eye contact with him.
He had a lot of latitude to make those decisions—Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s populist prime minister, told Tamás to knock down anything that had been damaged and replace it. Budapest auctioned off 230 Communist-era relics, including more than a dozen portraits of Lenin, to help fund disaster relief, and the government eventually provided $190 million in aid. The region also received $9.6 million from private donors.
Among the demolished buildings had been a crumbling old cinema that the locals had been complaining about for years. “People had been asking for that cinema to be knocked down for 20 years,” Tamás said, chuckling. “I guess it wasn’t all bad.”
The development built by Toldi Tamás in the wake of the flood. Photo by Sean Williams
After we left the town hall, Tamás took me to a small kindergarten. Toward the back of the building is a dim room with a sandbox on the floor and yellow-brown blocks of salt lining the wall. It’s a salt room, the type of which is common in high-end spa resorts and is said to relieve respiratory problems. (Many dismiss salt rooms as pseudoscience.)
“We make the kids take lessons in this room at least once a week,” Jennervé Pál Szilvia, the school director, told me. Tamás had insisted the school install the salt room to help kids suffering from clogged lungs, and he persuaded two Austrian businessman who’d visited shortly after the flood to pony up $65,000 to pay for it.
“We’re so fortunate our children weren’t affected more,” said Szilvia. “Of course we were scared. But it’s an unbelievably great achievement, what’s been done here… We were saved by this man.”
Tamás smiled briefly before fixing his face to its default frown setting. “I was just doing my job,” he said quietly before heading slowly to the front door.
Other improvements made as the town was rebuilt according to Tamás’s vision included a bus station heated by geothermal energy and a mulch-powered generator set up behind the town hall that heats the new homes. To run the generator, Tamás ordered a 75-acre poplar field to be planted on the damaged land. The poplars, which can grow up to eight feet a year, are chopped down every other summer and turned into mulch.
Hungarian politics are notoriously corrupt, and many have questioned some of Tamás’s more ambitious projects like the salt room and the mulch-powered generator, but he showed me a series of documents detailing when each project had been completed and how much it had cost—a rare amount of transparency for a mayor.
After the school, he showed me the new development built in the wake of the flood. The 87 white, red-roofed houses are all slightly different, and at the center of the development is a small chapel with a spire girded by two bronze wings—though it looks a bit like a half-submerged trout, it’s supposed to evoke a phoenix-like triumph.
At the bottom of the development are half a dozen homes whose walls are trimmed with ceramics and hanging baskets. They belong to Devecser’s small Roma population, who lived on the town’s lowest ground before the flood hit. As in other Eastern and Central European countries, the Roma have been increasingly persecuted in recent years. In August 2012, about a thousand black-shirted supporters of the far-right Jobbik (“Better Hungary”) Party marched through Devecser to protest against “Gypsy crime.” Tamás, sensing my train of thought as we looked at the Roma houses, said, “They keep to themselves, but they’re nice people.”
There are some things Tamás would have done better if he’d had more time and sleep. Perhaps more homes could have been built. A quicker cleanup could have saved those still suffering from burns. And he struggles to hide his anger at Bakonyi and MAL—the company was fined $650 million and nationalized after the reservoir burst, but though some employees, including Bakonyi, face charges, the mayor claims they’ve all so far escaped jail time. “Why should the judgment take so long?” Tamás said. “No one can understand. I can’t.”
But for someone who woke up to an environmental catastrophe on his first day and has had to rebuild his town from the ground up, it’s fair to say that Tamás has been pretty good for Devecser. Irma is proud of him, anyway, which is all that matters to him.