Hungary: sludge spill flows toward Danube River

A flood of red toxic sludge spilled by an aluminum plant in western Hungary has advanced along a secondary tributary to the Danube River and could reach the international waterway by the weekend, a local defense authority official said Oct. 6. One million cubic meters of sludge flooded the villages of Devecser, Kolontar and Somlovasarhely on Oct. 4 when a waste impoundment wall broke at the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant owned by MAL Magyar Aluminium in the town of Ajka, 160 kilometers southwest of Budapest.

Four people lost their lives, six remain missing, 123 others were injured, and about 280 homes were flooded by the toxic sludge, which causes burns or blindness when in contact with skin or eyes. The spill now covers about 40 square kilometers, causing the Hungarian government to declare a state of emergency in three counties.

Imre Szakacs, head of Gyor-Moson-Sopron County’s defense authority, told the state newswire MTI that the red sludgy mess is in the River Marcal which flows into the River Raba, which in turn flows into the Danube, 125 kilometers to the north.

Szakacs said the sludge would reach the Raba in a diluted condition and would cause “no ecological harm to the Danube.” But other observers are not so sure. WWF-Hungary is warning that the environmental impacts of this spill could be longer lasting than the 2000 cyanide spill into the Danube basin from a Romanian gold mine.

More than 500 personnel from the National Disaster Management Authority, as well as soldiers and experts from the aluminum company, are trying to stop the toxic sludge before it reaches the tributaries of the Danube, Jeno Lasztovicza, head of the defense committee, told reporters. He said workers are pouring plaster and artificial fertilizers into the Marcal River in an effort to bind the sludge.

The cause of the spill is under investigation and Prime Minister Viktor Orban has ordered the interior minister to investigate the criminal as well as the financial aspects of the spill. Production has been suspended at MAL Zrt. Orban said the company will not be shut down for a lengthy period, because offline it could not generate the revenue it can use for paying compensation.

Interior Minister Sandor Pinter said the government will ensure that people affected by the spill have a roof over their heads for the winter and are properly cared for.

Speaking from Kolontar, Gabor Figeczky of WWF-Hungary said the flood survivors feel hopeless. “Locals try to save their belongings but many are bereft of hope,” he said. “Most of them say they never want to move back to their previous homes.”

Figeczky added: “I have come from a house in which the red sludge is waist high. Everybody is wearing masks and gloves as they are shoveling the red sludge. The air is poisoned as well. It is very irritating to breath in.”

In a statement, the management of MAL expressed “deepest regrets” to all those affected by the spill, but stressed that the sludge is not classified as hazardous waste by the European Union. (ENS, Oct. 6)

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