Hungary declared a state of emergency, EU fears environmental catastrophe
08. October 2010. | 08:26 09:38
Dead fish floated in the Danube overnight after a toxic sludge spill that killed four people in Hungary reached Europe's second longest river, where it threatens to decimate marine life, officials said.Three adults and one child were killed and 123 people were injured, while three people are still missing.
A toxic red sludge spill from an alumina plant in western Hungary reached a side branch of the River Danube, a major European waterway, yesterday. Dead fish floated in the Danube overnight after a toxic sludge spill that killed four people in Hungary reached Europe's second longest river, where it threatens to decimate marine life, officials said.Three adults and one child were killed and 123 people were injured, while three people are still missing.
Karoly Tily, the mayor of Kolontar, the village where all four victims died, declared Wednesday a day of mourning, and the company which owned the reservoir, the Hungarian Aluminium Production and Trade Company (MAL), said it would foot the costs of the funerals.
Illes told online publication Langlovak in an interview that the overall costs of the clean-up and reconstruction "could reach tens of millions of euros (dollars)."If MAL was unable to drum up the funds, "the sum will be borne by the Hungarian government, or it might be necessary to ask the European Union for aid," he said.
The tidal wave of sludge overturned cars, swept away possessions and raised fears that pollution leeching from it could reach the Danube River, which courses through Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine before flowing into the Black Sea.
Late Wednesday officials said they were confident the contamination would not reach Europe's second longest river
"If our calculations are right then by the time the sludge reaches the Danube contamination will be under the acceptable levels," Emil Jenak, president of Northern Transdanubian Water Management, told AFP.
A pollution expert, quoted by the Hungarian news agency MTI, said rain and neutralising agents used so far had already led to a drop in alkaline levels in the Marcal river "and the connecting Raba will suffer much less damage" than feared.
But environmental organisation Greenpeace detected lead, chrome and arsenic in samples taken from a tributary of the Marcal, the river Torma.
The mud -- a residue from aluminium production which is highly corrosive and contains toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic and chromium -- destroyed all vegetation other than trees and seeped into hundreds of houses in villages and contaminated waterways.
A spokeswoman for the disaster relief services, Timea Petroczi, insisted that the drinking water system had not been affected, but "as a precautionary measure, people are not allowed to use the water wells".
Residents were also banned from eating any home-grown produce or from hunting or fishing in the region, she said.
Eyewitnesses say the force of the wave was so strong that cars were sucked out from their garages and it tore out windows and doors, covering everything.
Hungary declared a state of emergency in three counties on Tuesday after the sludge – waste from bauxite refining that has a strong caustic effect and heavy metal content – struck Kolontar, Devecser and other villages.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited Kolontar yesterday and said there was no point in even removing the rubble from part of the village as it was impossible to live there again.
“It is difficult to find the words. Had this happened at night, everybody would be dead,” Orban said.
He reiterated the disaster could not have been due to natural causes.
“This is an unprecedented ecological catastrophe in Hungary. Human error is more than likely. The wall (of the reservoir) did not disintegrate in a minute. This should have been detected. We are fighting in order to stop the pollution before the Danube,” he said.
The European Union says flooding in Hungary could affect half a dozen nations as poisonous mud threatens to enter the Danube River, one of Europe's main waterways.
Hungary intended to use its EU Presidency in the next year to draw attention to Danube River development, as transport, economy and tourist water artery, but now the government must cope with the aftermaths caused by the spill of the toxic sludge from an alumina plant reservoir, Hospodarske noviny newspaper writes. Budapest should seek assistance from the EU to cope with the situation.
On Wednesday, visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg expressed his condolences in Budapest for what he called "the terrible loss of life." He said the United States stands ready to help Hungary.
The European Union warned that if the waste reaches the Danube River, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Moldova might be threatened with volatile heavy metals.
MAL Zrt, owner of the alumina plant and burst reservoir, said on Tuesday there had been no sign of the impending disaster, adding that the last inspection of the reservoir on Monday had shown nothing wrong.
Kolontar, about 160km west of Budapest, lies closest to the reservoir of alumina maker Ajkai Timfoldgyar.
MAL has suspended all operations at the plant amid suggestions that the spill was caused by too much sludge in the tanks.Company chief Zoltan Bakonyi warned that if production were not resumed soon, MAL could go bankrupt.The company is the sole large employer in the impoverished region and has a workforce of 1,100.