Kastelypark: Ravaged by Red Mud

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A tree in the Kastelypark, stained by toxic red mud during the Ajka alumina plant accident. Image by Nadia Shira Cohen. Hungary, 2011.

Going west through Hungary on E66, the highway that connects the Pannonian Plain with the Alps, you will eventually see a road sign that directs you to the town of Devecser. Take a left at the sign. Drive carefully over the railway crossing and continue straight for a hundred meters. On your right-hand side you will see a reddish field and the husks of several empty houses with a red stripe, about a meter wide, running across the bottom section of the walls. On your left you will see an old forest with a red stripe, about a meter wide, running across the trunks of all the trees.

This is Kastelypark, or Castle Park. It was originally a marsh of the local Torna creek, but in the 1890s the famed Esterhazy family oversaw the creation of an English-style park in its place. They planted mostly native trees–maple, oak, black pine–but also some exotic species such as bald cypresses and tulip trees. The large information sign at the entrance of the park informs the visitors that Kastelypark also is–or was–the home of many wonderful birds: European Serin (Serinus serinus), Jackdaw (Corvus monedula), Sparrowhawk (Accipter nisus), Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendropcopos major), European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), European Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris).

When the tsunami of red mud from the reservoir of the Ajka alumina plant inundated this region on Oct. 4, 2010, it destroyed not only human lives and homes, but entire ecosystems. According to a recent report, aquatic life in the Torna creek and Marca river was devastated by the sludge. More than 1,000 acres of land were flooded. The famed Kastelypark was one of the victims.

Walking through Kastelypark is a surreal experience. Though the sludge itself has been carted off the land, the tree trunks, as usual, preserve the history of the place. Their bark is dyed a deep red, about a meter from the ground, as if forest sprites have been flying around with paintbrushes and measuring tape. Or perhaps this is Christo’s new art project? In the late afternoon it is hard to tell whether the redness is not just the strong reflection of the sunset.

As beautiful as destruction could sometimes be, this is a sad forest. Occasional blades of spring grass poke out of the reddish, poisoned soil. There is no insect life of any kind, no worms or snails. Here and there the voices of songbirds could still be heard, but they are drowned by the harsh chyak-chyak of the hundreds of jackdaws circling high above the treetops. In the dusky air, the sound is haunting.

During the day, men and women come here with high-pressure hoses, trying to wash off the red dye from the tree trunks, as if they were scrubbing off some kind of street graffiti. Their efforts are pointless. Like urban vandalism, environmental destruction is not just a bit of out-of-place color. Its causes and effects are deeply rooted–and no one yet has been able to wash off the roots of the trees.