Hungary Rebuilds Towns Destroyed By Toxic Waste

Nine months after a 184 million-gallon flood of toxic red sludge devastated Hungarian villages, the country is helping build new homes for the displaced.

KOLONTAR, Hungary (AP) -- Nine months after a flood of toxic red sludge devastated Hungarian villages, the country has built more than 100 new homes for the displaced. But for survivors such as Istvan Fuchs, who lost his mother in the disaster, the emotional recovery has just begun.

"We've been given a home which I'm grateful for, and materially we've been properly compensated," said Fuchs, a retired former transportation company manager. "But no one, no institution, can compensate me morally or emotionally. No one can give back my mother."

Fuchs and his wife, Emma, moved into their new home three weeks ago, and on Thursday they watched from their doorstep as Interior Minister Sandor Pinter and other officials toured their street.

Fuchs and his extended family, including two of his brothers, were all affected by Hungary's greatest environmental disaster in different ways, but they shared the loss of their mother, Jolan, who was swept away by the rush of some 184 million gallons (700,000 cubic meters) of caustic red sludge.

On Oct. 4, a reservoir at a metals plant collapsed, releasing the torrent, a byproduct of aluminum production. The deluge killed 10 people and injured more than 150 in western Hungary.

The caustic, scarlet material was in a massive storage pool belonging to MAL Rt., a metals producer. The northern wall of the reservoir -- 25 acres (10 hectares) in size -- collapsed and in just minutes the muck swept through three towns.

Since then, one neighborhood in Kolontar, the town most affected by the deluge, has been demolished and many former residents have moved into new, state-financed homes in a more elevated part of town.

The disaster has cost Hungary more than $158 million (euro111 million) in damages and reconstruction costs.

More than 300 families in Kolontar, Devecser and Somlovasarhely lost their homes in the flood. To replace them, the government has built new 112 houses in the three towns, while 125 families bought used homes in the area and some 80 others chose to receive cash compensation.

Declaring a state of emergency, the government last year took control of MAL, ending its direct oversight just days ago. In February, the plant switched to a drier technology to produce alumina -- which is used to make aluminum -- so there are no longer tons of toxic waste accumulating in its reservoirs.

Environmental damage to the area, which includes streams flowing into a tributary of the Danube River, is also being repaired, and some 75,000 dump truck loads of contaminated soil and rubble have been removed.

The 60-year-old Fuchs had done odd jobs at the metals plant since he was 14, so the moment he noticed the red mass advancing on his home near the edge of town, he yelled to his wife to drop everything and run up to the attic.

His quick thinking saved them, but they lost everything else — furniture, clothes, books, photographs.

His mother, living just down the road, drowned in the flood. Her body was found days later in a fishing pond belonging to another of her sons, Jozsef.

Jozsef Fuchs' Kolontar home was spared in the flood, but he lost much of his livelihood. The still-high toxicity of the pond water makes it unsuitable for fish farming and since the woods surrounding the pond were either destroyed by the sludge or cut down during the cleanup efforts, its attractiveness for weekend anglers has all but disappeared.

"No one wants to come fishing here anymore," said Jozsef Fuchs, 58. "I have no use for the pond. It was beautiful, but now it could just as well be a desert."

Police are still investigating the disaster, and four people, including one of MAL's directors, have been questioned by Hungary's National Investigation Office.

On Thursday, Joszef Fuchs waited with his wife and son outside the Kolontar mayor's office, hoping to give a petition to minister Pinter, since his property, where he also raises cattle, failed to qualify for financial aid from the state.

"I was born in one of the houses that was demolished and my mother's body was found at the end of my fishing pond," Fuchs said. "I want to stay here and I'm probably going to die here. But in the meantime, I still need to make a living."

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