Image: Cracks in sludge reservoir wall
AFP - Getty Images
Cracks have appeared on the north side of the reservoir wall of the alumina plant near Ajka, Hungary, forcing new evacuations.
msnbc.com news services
updated 10/10/2010 5:56:20 PM ET 2010-10-10T21:56:20

The wall of a reservoir filled with caustic red sludge will inevitably collapse and unleash a new deluge of red sludge that could flow about a half-mile to the north, a Hungarian official said Sunday.

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That would flood parts of the town already hit by the industrial waste on Monday but stop short of the next town to the north.

Environmental State Secretary Zoltan Illes said recently discovered cracks on the northern wall of the reservoir at the alumina plant have temporarily stopped widening because of favorable weather conditions but will continue to expand, especially at night.

The reservoir could collapse "within one day or a week," he said.

Disaster agency spokesman Tibor Dobson said engineers didn't detect any new cracks overnight, and the older cracks were being repaired, but that it was too soon to consider lowering the current state of alert.

Protective walls were being built around the reservoir's damaged area to hold back any further spills and a 2,000-foot long dam was under construction to save the areas of the town of Kolontar not directly hit by Monday's disaster.

"I would describe the situation as hopeful, but nothing has really changed," Dobson told The Associated Press. "The wall to protect Kolontar is planned to be finished by tonight, but it will likely be several days before residents may be able to move back."

Gyorgyi Tottos, a spokeswoman for disaster crews, called it "a race against time as good weather is forecast for the coming few days but then the rain will come."

Nearly all of Kolontar's 800 residents were evacuated Saturday, when Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the north wall of the massive storage pool — which is 24.7 acres in size — was expected to "very likely" collapse after cracks were detected at several points along the dam.

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The roughly 6,000 residents of neighboring Devecser, just north of Kolontar, were told by police Saturday to pack a single bag and get ready to leave at a moment's notice.

"This hasn't changed," Dobson said. "We are still on guard in case of any more spills."

The owners of the alumina plant expressed their condolences Sunday to the families of the seven people killed, as well as to those injured — and said they were sorry for not having done so sooner.

The company also said it was willing to pay compensation "in proportion to its responsibility" for the damage caused by the deluge.

Red sludge is a byproduct of the refining of bauxite into alumina, the basic material for manufacturing aluminum. Treated sludge is often stored in ponds where the water eventually evaporates, leaving behind a largely safe red clay. Industry experts say the sludge in Hungary appears to have been insufficiently treated, if at all, meaning it remained highly caustic.

Illes, commenting to reporters during a tour of the affected villages and the damaged reservoir, confirmed that red sludge stored in Hungarian reservoirs was not treated to reduce its alkalinity.

On Monday, the sludge flooded three villages in less than an hour, burning people and animals. At least seven people were killed and at least 120 were injured. Several of those who were hospitalized were in serious condition. Around 184 million gallons of the caustic red sludge was released.

The red sludge devastated creeks and rivers near the spill site and entered the Danube River on Thursday, moving downstream toward Croatia, Serbia and Romania. But the volume of water in the Danube appeared to be blunting the sludge's immediate impact.

Illes said that neutralizing chemicals poured into primary and secondary tributaries of the Danube, as well as efforts to remove as much red sludge as possible from the waterways, was able to prevent ecological damage to Europe's second-longest river.

Orban said he would inform parliament on Monday about the findings of an investigation and promised the "toughest possible consequences" to ensure such a disaster does not recur.

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He added that the government would not decide before Monday whether the company that owns the damaged reservoir can resume production.

Shutting down the alumina factory would threaten the livelihood of several thousand people.

In Romania, local authorities were testing the water Sunday every four hours in the village of Bazias where the Danube enters Romania from Serbia, and will continue to carry out tests all this week, said Adrian Draghici, director of Romanian water for Mehedinti county.

Romanian fishermen sailed out into the Danube and villagers fished on the banks of the river for pike, which is plentiful in the Danube. They seemed unperturbed by any potential hazards.

But local authorities warned residents about letting animals drink from the Danube and urged them to be careful with fishing, as a precautionary measure.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Officials: Wall holding sludge likely to burst

Photos: Toxic red sludge floods towns near Budapest

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  1. The break in the reservoir near Akja, Hungary, is seen on Tuesday, Oct. 12. Cracks have also appeared in another section. (Sandor H. Szabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Reuters photographer Bernadett Szabo has her boots sprayed after walking amid red toxic sludge in the flooded village of Devecser, Hungary, on Oct. 6. (Laszlo Balogh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. An aerial view shows the cracked northern wall of the reservoir containing red mud from the alumina factory on Oct. 10. (Gyoergy Varga / MTI via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Toxic sludge floods the streets of the Hungarian village of Devecser, Saturday, Oct. 9. (Laszlo Balogh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The level of the sludge is seen on the wall of a house in Kolontar, Hungary, Oct. 10. (Balint Porneczi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A rescue worker inspects a house in the flooded village of Devecser, Oct. 9. (Bernadett Szabo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Employees of the Romanian National Administration of Waters take samples on Oct. 9 from the Danube river in Bazias, Hungary, where the Danube enters Romania. Fears for the ecosystem of the Danube, Europe's second longest river, appeared to recede somewhat on Oct. 8 as readings showed contamination levels from the Oct. 4 toxic sludge disaster were down. (Daniel Mihailescu / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A summer hat and personal belongings are covered by sludge in a house in Kolontar, Hungary, Oct. 10. (Samuel Kubani / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. An elderly resident cleans his house in Devecser, Hungary, on Oct. 9. (Balint Porneczi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, front left, is interviewed during his tour of the sludge-hit village of Kolontar, 103 miles southwest of Budapest, on Thursday, Oct. 07. (Balazs Mohai / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Jozsef Toth, an official of the Hungarian enviromental service, checks a sample of water from the Raba River on the banks of the river in Gyor, about 800 miles from Budapest on Oct. 7. The toxic spill reached the Danube river on Thursday, threatening to contaminate the waterway's ecosystem. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. An aerial view of streets covered with red mud in Devecser, 100 miles southwest of Budapest, on Wednesday, Oct. 6. (Sandor H. Szabo / MTI via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A man stands in his destroyed home in the flooded village of Kolontar, 93 miles west of Budapest on Wednesday. (Laszlo Balogh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A resident rests on a chair in the garden of his house while rescuing his belongings in Devecser, on Wednesday. (Tamas Kovacs / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The eye of a soldier is washed with mineral water after burning red mud spattered in his eye during cleaning operation in Kolontar on Wednesday. (Zsolt Szigetvary / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Excavators working at the broken dyke of the reservoir that contained red mud of an alumina factory near Ajka on Wednesday. (Sandor H. Szabo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Sunflowers stand in poisonous red mud in a field in Somlovasarhely, 105 miles southwest of Budapest, on Wednesday. (Tamas Kovacs / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A wheel loader dumps plaster into River Marcal in Vinar, 114 miles west of Budapest, on Wednesdy, in order to prevent poisonous chemical sludge from reaching the rivers Raba and Danube. (Tamas Kovacs / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Dead fish float on the Marcal River at the bridge of Morichida about 93 miles west from Budapest on Wednesday. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. An aerial view of the broken dyke of a reservoir containing red mud of an alumina factory near Ajka, 96 miles southwest of Budapest, on Wednesday. (Sandor H. Szabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Damaged cars are piled up by the flood of red mud in Devecser, on Wednesday. (Balazs Mohai / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Residents return to check their homes in Kolontar, southwest of Budapest, on Wednesday. Hungarian crews worked for a second day to prevent seepage from a sludge reservoir of an alumina plant in western Hungary as rescue units searched for missing people in flooded villages. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Civil Protection Service workers clean sludge-covered streets in Kolontar, southwest of Budapest, on Wednesday. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Jozsef Holczer works in his yard flooded by toxic mud in Kolontar, on Wednesday. (Bela Szandelszky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A villager is reflected in a flood of toxic mud, while walking through his backyard in Kolontar, on Wednesday. (Bela Szandelszky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Young women pass by firemen as they carry their belongings in red mud covered a street in Devecser, southwest of Budapest, on Tuesday, Oct. 5. (Balazs Mohai / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A Hungarian soldier wearing a chemical protection gear walks through a street flooded by toxic in the town of Devecser, on Tuesday. (Bela Szandelszky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. An aerial view of the red mud covered streets and overturned vehicles in a yard in Devecser, southwest of Budapest, on Tuesday. (Gyoergy Varga / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A pet dog walks in the toxic mud on Tuesday, in the villages of Devecser and Kolontar. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. An aerial photo taken on Tuesday, of the broken wall of the reservoir of the Ajka alumina factory. (Gyoergy Varga / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. A woman observes the damage in the town of Devecser on Tuesday. About 35.3 million cubic feet of sludge has leaked from the reservoir and affected an estimated area of 15.4 square miles. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. A woman rescues belongings in the villages flooded by a red toxic mud from the sludge reservoir of the Ajka aluminium works on Tuesday, in the villages of Devecser and Kolontar. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. A man stands knee-deep in toxic sludge as cleanup efforts begin in Devecser on Tuesday. Seven towns near the plant, including Kolontal, Devecser and Somlovasarhely, were affected. (Bernadett Szabo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Tunde Erdelyi, left, saves her cat, while Janos Kis, right, walks into their yard flooded by toxic mud in Devecser on Tuesday. (Bela Szandelszky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A man salvages some belongings in Devecser on Monday, Oct. 4. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Firefighters wade through mud flowing in the streets next to a timber trailer in Devecser on Monday. (Lajos Nagy / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. People wait to be rescued from a rooftop in Devecser on Monday. (Lajos Nagy / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. The broken wall of the reservoir of the Ajka alumina factory in Kolontar. (Gyoergy Varga / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
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