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Memories of Red: Hungary's Sludge Disaster

January 05, 2012|

Pulitzer Center grantees Dimiter Kenarov and Nadia Shira Cohen traveled to Hungary to document the process of recovery after one of Europe's biggest environmental catastrophes. In October 2010, a red toxic sludge engulfed residential areas and farmland near the Ajkai Alumina plant, about 160 miles southwest of Budapest. The substance was a byproduct of refining bauxite into alumina and contained heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic and chromium that burned through human tissues and created wounds that never healed properly. The disaster killed 10 people, injured more than a hundred, and heavily damaged waterways and soils. Today residents have returned home to persisting environmental and health problems, including lead poisoning, respiratory issues, and infertile farmland. Despite the dim outlook, the disaster has produced at least one positive outcome: better social integration of Hungary's Roma minority.

For their project Toxic Europe Dimiter Kenarov and Nadia Shira Cohen wade through the hidden toxic waste in the European Union's new member states, where EU environmental standards are still very difficult to enforce.