The morning after 35 million cubic feet of caustic waste devastated 15 square miles of Hungary, a group of petrolheads traveled to ground zero and set up a mobile kitchen. We lent a hand in a Ford Transit fire truck.
The morning of October 5 dawned like any other Indian summer day on Kolontár, a community of 845 in hilly Western Hungary. For thiry years, its residents had lived
in the shadow of a 37-acre tailing pond for red mud owned by MAL Hungarian Aluminium, a local mining company. Shortly after noon, the northwest corner of the pond’s dam collapsed, unleashing a humongous wave of rust-tinged lye on Kolontár and 15 square miles of Hungarian countryside. The wave of sludge killed nine people, injured 150, and damaged tens of millions of dollars worth of property. You have no doubt seen the pictures.
“I was out in the front yard trimming my lawn,” Kolontár resident Zoli told me a week after the disaster. “Then I heard people screaming that the dam had burst. I was like, what dam? Then I saw the wave of red sludge. It reached ten feet high in places and kept flowing for 45 minutes.”
Zoli is a member of V8 Cars, a club for Hungarian enthusiasts of big American cars who organize the annual American car festival in a disused military fort we’ve
reported on in August. He was one of the lucky ones. The wave of sludge spared his house by no more than a couple of feet.
His friends from the car club arrived at the disaster site the morning after. They came equipped with a large tent, a mobile kitchen, and supplies. Leaving their boattail Rivieras and Mustangs home, they set out to feed whoever needed feeding at the epicenter of Hungary’s worst-ever industrial accident.
Zoltán Sipos is not your average petrolhead. At first glance he appears to be a fairly regular guy with perhaps a glint of madness in his gaze until you learn that he owns, among other things, a Volga hearse, another Volga hearse, a decommissioned ambulance, a Ford Sierra with a welded differential, a giant V8 Mercedes–Benz W108 from the late ‘60s, a British ice cream truck, and a decommissioned Austrian
fire engine. Zoltán learned about the American car enthusiasts and their mobile kitchen and took it upon himself to help. With a few calls to his friends-and-relations, he collected $900 to spend on food, water, and kitchen supplies. I was one of the donors and I joined him for the ride.
The fire engine is a 1983 Ford Transit which had served the volunteer fire department of an Austrian village until 2006, when Zoltán picked it up for $1400. With barely 13,000 miles on the odometer, it is practically new. It is also rather magnificent in its utilitarian way. Its 3.0-liter carburated V6 powers all six wheels.
The Ford may not appear to be huge, but it is very spacious. Zoltán’s $900 of donations bought us cubic feet of Pepsi, cartons of energy drinks, pounds of spices, pallets of cookies, along with several industrial rolls of paper towels. The engine’s monster cargo bay swallowed it all with ease. Sitting high and pretty, we set off on the 120-mile drive to Kolontár. We were yet to learn the true magnificence of our choice of vehicle.
Imagine a world without aluminum. Begin by not reading this article: I’m typing these words on a computer made mostly of the metal. Imagine, if you will, a sky
without jetliners, a Coke machine without cans of Coke, and imagine a 2011 Mustang without an engine. Without aluminum, industrial society literally could not exist—and it is aluminum which is at the heart of this chemical spill.
It takes determination and a stomach for massive quantities of waste to tease valuable metals from their ores. In the case of aluminum, the process begins with the reddish mineral bauxite, a mixture of aluminum hydroxide, iron oxide—rust, that is—and various other metal oxides. Bauxite is strip mined, pulverized, then subjected to the Bayer process: The pulverized rock is treated under great pressure with hot lye to turn the aluminum hydroxide into alumina (a form of aluminum oxide) which can then be electrolized into pure aluminum.
For every pound of alumina, you get two pounds of useless red mud. It is red because of the rust and it is highly corrosive because of the lye at the heart of the Bayer process. The mud is dumped into tailing ponds where the rusty fraction sinks to the bottom and the lye rises to the top. Every once in a while the lye is pumped back into the factory for another cycle under pressure.
It was this rust-tinged lye, 35 million cubic feet of the stuff, which coursed across the Transdanubia countryside and which came down on Kolontár like the Plague of Blood from the Old Testament.
As we made our way west in Zoltán’s fire engine, it was impossible to miss the edge of the zone of destruction. Emergency and military vehicles had been tracking red mud on every local road for a week. After turning off the main highway, we first
reached the town of Devecser, which looked like a set for a post-apocalyptic video game. Soldiers in hazmat suits lined the road shoveling the gunk away, while residents milled about on bicycles, their rubber boots caked with mud.
Beyond Devecser is a no man’s land of Martian waste. It is a sight we should never have seen, as the roads beyond town are hermetically sealed with police road blocks who are supposed to keep out everyone but emergency personnel. However, it turned out that the Hollywood trope of a villain who dons a paramedic suit and commandeers an ambulance into a closed-off area actually works in real life. Our decommissioned fire engine, bearing Austrian signage, was waved through checkpoint after checkpoint with nary a glance from the troops with their submachine guns and dust masks. Without losing a fraction of his cool, Zoltán returned every wave with a smile.
The road between Devecser and Kolontár is lined with furniture, toys, gates, everything which happened to be in the way of the wave of rusty lye. The fields are covered in the thick goo for as far as the eye can see. Cars poke out of the very land.
Kolontár proper is a ghost town. It has been evacuated since last weekend and the only humans are emergency managers, police, and firefighters. We are the only people who are none of those things.
Local resident Zoli and his wife Ilcsi greet us at the mobile kitchen, joined by another couple, Robi and Rózsa. The four of them have been cooking meals in giant
vats for over a week. Their initial plan was to cook for the shell-shocked residents. After the evacuation, they’ve transitioned to boosting the meager rations of the police and the firefighters with their hearty stews.
“Just this day we served 500 meals,” Ilcsi tells me, then thanks us for the help. The men join us to unload the supplies from the fire engine’s cargo bay. After a week on bottled water, everyone is positively giddy at the sight of all the Pepsi.
With our work done and the warm October sun dipping toward the horizon, Zoltán and I leave the gang and head toward Kossuth Lajos Street, the heart of the disaster.
The silence is punctuated by the air-cooled V8’s of heavy Tatra trucks and it is a silence like the afternoon of the September 11 attacks in the suburbs of
Washington, D.C., where I had been working at the time. The silence in America was the silence of a closed airspace whereas the silence in Hungary is the silence of a village without its residents, and the sky is like the sky over the Eastern Seaboard on that long-ago afternoon, a deep, gorgeous blue. Police roam the streets in dust masks, but they don’t stop us. Apparently, it is assumed that if you’ve made it through all the checkpoints, you have business to attend to in Kolontár.
I had seen the pictures. It would have been very hard not to. But nobody wrote about the smell. The place smells like a fucking slaughterhouse.
It takes me a moment to figure out why, then my memories of medical school come to the rescue. Red mud gets its color from the same substance which gives blood its color: Iron(III) oxide. Spilled and slightly spoiled blood smells exactly like the red mud covering the village. The smell gets in your nostrils and stays there for hours.
Houses and back yards and gates and bicycles and cars and trees and stereos and windows and curtains and road signs are all covered in red mud, its color echoing the sunset. It is as though a cruel god had struck this unfortunate land and obliterated the life and work of families in an instant, a plague of red mud visited upon a random community who worship aluminum like we all do. In the eerie quiet the sun dips below the horizon across the Torna creek, its waters shorn of all life, still running red over a week after the spill.
Back at the mobile kitchen, I strike up a conversation with two emergency managers. They turn out to be huge car geeks. One of them owns a red ‘67 Mustang convertible while the other guy, István, is the owner of a ‘58 Edsel—one of only two in Hungary. His eyes light up when I recognize the picture of the car on his
phone and he tells me the story of how he had purchased it in the Netherlands from a family who had also had a ‘58 Cadillac for sale. Another guy turns out to be a Jalopnik reader. Over bowls of stew, we talk into the night.
We have yet to learn what caused this disaster. Geologists say that while the dam of the tailing pond wasn’t improperly constructed, the ground underneath may have become unstable after heavy rains this year. It is yet to emerge whether the catastrophe could have been prevented and whether MAL, the owner of the pond, can be held responsible, or if a tailing pond’s integrity is the responsibility of Hungary’s environmental authorities. Hungary’s strange and aggressive new political class is certainly not helping to clear things up, placing the CEO under arrest, then releasing him after two days, communicating waves of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, then taking over the company itself and installing a party hand as caretaker CEO.
With the sun gone, it is nearly freezing cold. On roads sticky with red mud, we drive out of the village and stop at a decontamination station where soldiers in hazmat suits hose down our fire engine. For a while, we don’t talk much. Under the shadow of the dark side of heavy industry, an industry we couldn’t possibly continue our way of life without, we turn onto the main highway and accelerate back home. Zoltán’s fire engine, our cheeky chariot of charity, purrs contentedly, helped along with an occasional nudge of the choke valve. After an hour I am asleep.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky (top and 10th from top), AP Photo/MTI, Gyoergy Varga (2nd and 11th from top), NASA (3rd from top), AFP PHOTO / INDEX ATTILA NAGY (17th from top), and Zoltán Sipos (2nd from bottom). Other photos and video by Peter Orosz.