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Crews Race To Avert Fresh Disaster At Site Of Hungarian Sludge Spill

An aerial view of the ruptured reservoir

An aerial view of the ruptured reservoir

Volunteers have joined Hungarian disaster relief workers in building a 600-meter-long wall to protect villages and the countryside from another devastating spill of alumina sludge from a burst factory dam.

The dam gave way a week ago, inundating villages, wide swaths of countryside, and several waterways with thick red mud. At least seven people died and more than 100 were injured by the toxic waste.

Now, a new and possibly larger outpouring of mud is expected at any time because more of the original dam wall has developed cracks.

Zoltan Illes, Hungary's state secretary for the environment, says his work crews need just a few days more to finish the new containment wall below the factory. The present dry weather is likely to give way to rain in two or three days, and that spells trouble.

"According to analysis," Illes told Reuters on October 10, "these walls, for sure, will fall down. Why? Because the movement of walls, logically speaking, are continuing. Why? Because behind the walls, 2.5 million cubic meters of red mud is pushing that wall. What is outside? Nothing -- air."

Illes said also that MAP, the company which owns the aluminum plant, could face up to $100 million in fines if found negligent.

In Budapest, Prime Minister Viktor Orban told parliament that police have detained the company's chief executive officer and that the government will take over the safe running of the plant. He said the factory cannot be closed down because thousands of jobs depend on it.

Kolontar is the village worst hit by the disaster and its population of nearly 1,000 people has been evacuated because of the threat of a new spill.

'My Sons Legs Are Burned'

The disaster has brought misery to local people, who fear that their farms and homes may be permanently polluted by the red sludge, which in addition to being alkaline and thus producing skin burns is also radioactive.

"It's bad, bad. Both my son's legs are burned. He will be operated on tomorrow," says Jeno Hefler, a resident of the down-valley town of Devecser. "I feel really bad. My whole life's work [is destroyed]. I feel terrible. They can't say anything concrete about what will happen with us. My situation is impossible to describe. It's impossible."

Military trucks and a special train are waiting at Devecser to move people to safety quickly in the event of a new dam burst. But engineers at the site say the remaining material is thicker than the waste that spilled a week ago and is not expected to flow more than a kilometer from its starting point.

Additionally, a danger emerged as the red sludge dried out and began to turn to toxic dust, which is dangerous to inhale. The dust contains the heavy metals lead, cadmium, arsenic, and chromium. Residents and relief workers have been told to wear breathing masks and eye protection.

The European Union is sending a team of experts to give advice on decontamination.

Meanwhile, the aluminum company at the center of the disaster, MAL, has asked for government permission to resume production, saying that it the plant stays nonoperational any longer, it would be unviable to restart it.

compiled from agency reports