Everything Flooded with Red by Andria Timmer

On October 4, 2010, a small Hungarian town named Kolontár was flooded with toxic industrial waste produced by a local aluminum plant as the retaining wall broke holding back a lake of sludge. Click here for a photo essay. Savage Minds welcomes ethnographer Andria Timmer for a one time blog post on the catastrophe. Andria is a lecturer of anthropology at Christopher Newport University and conducted field research in Hungary. She completed her PhD and MPH at the University of Iowa and her dissertation research concerned nongovernmental efforts to desegregate the education system and increase educational opportunities for Hungary’s Roma minority.

Everything Flooded with Red

Add another one to the list of recent environmental disasters. Just for fun go to Google Maps and search for Kolontár, Hungary in satellite view. The rust-colored square that you see there is a visceral reminder of the a red tsunami that overtook parts of Hungary last week when the metal reservoir of an aluminum plant burst. The deluge killed at least 8 people, over 100 were injured, and the residents of the village of Kolontár were evacuated. The country now prepares for a likely second spill.

Amidst the shocking images of houses and streets slathered with a substance reminiscent of blood, workers knee-deep in sludge, and, most disturbingly to dog lovers, a red-tinged komodor (a breed of dog typical of Hungary), come reports that it may not be as bad as expected. Hungarian and international officials are still trying to determine how severe the effects of the spill will be. Apparently, the levels of contaminate in the Danube River is at an acceptable level for human consumption. Fears that the sludge will enter the Danube in mass amounts have abated. The sludge itself is not fatally toxic in the short term and, although medium and long term effects are not known, if cleaned up efficiently should cause minimal long term damage. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán acted quickly to find someone to blame. The head of the company has been detained and documents have been seized. The government is taking over plant operations and trying to get people back to work.

The residents of Kolontár tell a different story. Veronika Gulyás, covering the story for the Wall Street Journal, reports that the villagers will not return to their village. The land is polluted and unsuitable for growing crops. All life in a nearby tributary of the Danube has been extinguished. And this will not be the last of it. The wall of the reservoir is expected to collapse releasing another wave of the red sludge, likely to be more toxic than the first. If this is not bad, what is it? If we cannot yet call this an environmental disaster, when can we?

Environmental concerns are not new to Eastern Europe. The Soviet era left its legacy in the form of polluted rivers and soil. High rates of blue baby syndrome (methemoglobinemia) in Romania are attributable to high levels of nitrates and human fecal matter in the drinking water supply. Much of the soil in Slovakia is contaminated with cancer-causing byproducts. The Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine and the contamination of the Tisza and Danube rivers in Hungary with cyanide from abandoned Romanian factories are still in recent memory and are causing untold health effects (see Krista Harper’s work on environmental movements in Hungary). Many of the worst ecological offenses have been cleaned up with the help of EU and US funds and increased surveillance and regulations during pre-EU accession negotiations. However, it seems that many lesser offenses easily slipped through the cracks.

When they joined the European Union in 2004, Hungary was ahead of the curve when it came to cleaning up environmental messes which is why this latest catastrophe comes as such a surprise. Hungary also had the longest wait between application and admission to the European Union. During this time they were scrutinized on everything from environmental concerns to ethnic relations. One would expect that potential environmental threats would have been addressed. It begs the question, is this disaster an anomaly or a sign of things to come? What does this bode for the neighboring countries of Romania and Bulgaria who, in comparison, had a very short period of pre-accession negotiations?

The red sludge in Hungary, like the oil spill in the gulf, seems to be a sign of the times. Environmental disasters are becoming more and more common and it serves no one if we continue to downplay their severity. Hungary is a small country with a largely rural population with 30-40% living below the poverty line. The populace cannot afford a disaster of this magnitude. Orbán can be credited with acting quickly to find one responsible for this case of what he calls “human negligence”, and, I must admit it is refreshing to see someone jailed for environmental crimes. However, it is unlikely that the chief executive of MAL Hungarian Aluminum is wholly to blame.

Clean up efforts continue, the UN is sending a team to investigate the disaster, and EU officials have sent relief workers. In the meantime, however, mindent vörös elöntött – everything is flooded with red.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

6 thoughts on “Everything Flooded with Red by Andria Timmer

  1. I don’t like the trend these days to write “environmental disasters are become more and more” and the like, which I think is not true. What this disaster and the one in the gulf of mexico have in common (and I definitely do agree, that they can fully be called disasters), is that they where human caused environmental disaster, which might in fact be a sign of the times. It may be a slight difference, but just saying, they are a lot or even more environmental disasters these days, sounds like the earth itself was at fault.

  2. “Environmental disasters are becoming more and more common and it serves no one if we continue to downplay their severity.”

    Is that true? If we looked at both the severity and regularity of environmental disasters historically, would that statement be true? Can we say that even in the former Soviet Union things were better environmentally than they are today? And, if it’s true, then by how much? Also, wouldn’t we need to differentiate between chronic and acute disasters; say, the Gulf Oil Spill versus chronic pollution in China’s expanding urban areas?

  3. I was having a powerful response to the same comment last night reading this guys, but wasn’t sure how do make it into a productive comment. I work with a mining combine (city and mine built together) in the former Soviet sphere. There is a huge tailings pond at this site, which was reinforced in the mid-90s, during the period in which this community was at its lowest point in terms of economic production at least. This article also has a huge assumption that is bothering me about alot of anthropology I come across lately; which i see as basically a kind of economic man argument that many anthropologists would oppose vehemently if posed in terms other than those of “deregulation”:

    When they joined the European Union in 2004, Hungary was ahead of the curve when it came to cleaning up environmental messes which is why this latest catastrophe comes as such a surprise. Hungary also had the longest wait between application and admission to the European Union. During this time they were scrutinized on everything from environmental concerns to ethnic relations. One would expect that potential environmental threats would have been addressed. It begs the question, is this disaster an anomaly or a sign of things to come? What does this bode for the neighboring countries of Romania and Bulgaria who, in comparison, had a very short period of pre-accession negotiations?

  4. I still think one of the best ethnographies of an industrial disaster of this sort — and extremely relevant to what’s going on in in this entry — is “Everything In Its Path” by Kai Erikson. So often the scale of these disasters is incomprehensible to the people involved in them, much less outsiders who hear of them second hand. Erikson’s book does a superb job of presenting the desolation and hopelessness that emerges in the aftermath of these sorts of disasters.

  5. It is amazing, I have talked to many elderly people and they say that they never remember disasters like this. I am not sure if it is just better publicity with the internet and such or we have one huge problem on our hands.

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