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Hungary Opens Criminal Probe As Toxic Sludge Disaster Continues

  • Richard Solash

Toxic red sludge swept into several Hungarian towns on October 4.

Toxic red sludge swept into several Hungarian towns on October 4.

Hungary has opened a criminal probe into what sent a torrent of toxic sludge bursting from a metals plant, wreaking havoc in surrounding towns.

Four people have died, three are still missing, and hundreds had to be evacuated after the walls of a reservoir at an aluminum plant collapsed on October 4, releasing a soup of industrial waste. Hundreds of people are also suffering from chemical burns caused by the highly alkaline red sludge. A state of emergency has been declared in three western counties.

Two days after the flood, it was still unclear why the reservoir, located some 160 kilometers southwest of Budapest, failed.

"I have ordered the interior minister to start an investigation to find out who is responsible for this," Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said. "We do not know of any sign which indicates that this disaster would have natural causes. And if a disaster has no natural causes, then it can be considered a disaster caused by people. Everyone in this country wants to know who is accountable for this tragedy and the property damage."

Orban said the authorities were caught off-guard by the disaster, since a plant inspection two weeks earlier had found no irregularities.

Monika Benyi, a police spokeswoman, told the AP news agency that on-the-job carelessness was a possible cause.

Local Crisis...

The four people killed by the flood were all residents of Kolontar, the town nearest to the plant. Many residents are dependent on the plant for their livelihood, and some were still reeling as scientists, government officials, and clean-up crews streamed in to deal with the damage.

"I was stuck in the sludge for 45 minutes, covered in sludge up to here, it had a strong current that it almost swept me away but I managed to hang on to a strong piece of wood from the pig sty," said one resident of the town. "I could hardly breathe because that air, that smell, that froth really hit me."

Wading through the bright red muck in rubber boots and passing the bodies of dead animals, resident Joszef Holzer said he doubted the town could make a recovery.

"I think there will be no life here anymore," he told the Reuters news agency. "It's 99 percent that there won't be life here anymore the way things look now."

Kolontar Mayor Karoly Tily declared October 6 a day of mourning.

The country's Environment Ministry said the clean-up could take as long as a year.

...International Impact?

But as the catastrophe unfolds in a quiet corner of Hungary, authorities warn it could develop into a crisis of international proportions.

On October 5, the Hungarian Water Regulation Authority estimated it would take the sludge about five days to reach the Danube, one of Europe's main waterways. South of Hungary, the Danube flows through Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Moldova before emptying into the Black Sea.

Emergency workers on October 6 poured 1,000 tons of plaster into the water of Hungary's Marcal River to try to bind the sludge and keep it from reaching the Danube, some 70 kilometers away. On October 7, A disaster-relief services official said the red mud had reached the Mosoni-Duna branch of the Danube River, about 10 kilometers from the river's main waterway.

Officials in Serbia and Romania had already begun monitoring water quality and the EU has urged Hungary to try to contain the spill.

Peter Weller, of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube, told RFE/RL that major transboundary consequences of the spill were "unlikely." But he said that if it spread, it could eventually reach more humans through the food chain.

"Heavy metals, once they are released into a water system, are then, over time, taken up by the aquatic plants that are then eaten by the fish, and then the materials build up in the food chain and do then have toxic consequences or health consequences for fish or potentially humans, who are eating them," he said. "That could happen."

Marton Vay, of Greenpeace Hungary, told RFE/RL the seepage of toxins deep underground was the primary worry.

"The most serious part is not the rivers, because they will get fresh water from the upper part. But around these four villages, we will need to treat the soil, and now it has washed toward the drinking water basin underground," Vay said. "We don't know when it will reach and we don't know if will be possible to treat the soil, because the pollution will be in it very, very deep."

He added that Hungary didn't have the resources to deal with the unprecedented emergency.

One volunteer worker in the town of Kolontar told the AFP news agency that the situation on the ground was one of "chaos."

Vay also pointed out that the ecological and public health nightmare caused by the sludge will not end when it dries.

"The dust would have chrome, arsenic, lead, and as far as I know, mercury. And the wind could spread it over a very big region and people would breathe it," he said. "Nobody knows what this will mean."

with agency reporting