Image: A TV crew films a crack on the ruptured reservoir wall of a aluminum plant in Hungary
Balint Porneczi  /  AFP - Getty Images
A TV crew films a crack on the ruptured reservoir wall of the aluminum plant near Ajka, Hungary, on Sunday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 10/11/2010 3:15:16 PM ET 2010-10-11T19:15:16

Hungarian police have detained the director of the aluminum company responsible for a flood of caustic red sludge that killed eight people when it burst from its reservoir last week, the prime minister said Monday.

Police said they were questioning managing director Zoltan Bakonyi on suspicion of public endangerment causing multiple deaths and environmental damage.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban told parliament that the government wanted to take over MAL Rt., the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company, because the safe restart of production at the alumina plant was needed to save the jobs of thousands of workers.

Orban said his administration was also freezing the company's assets to ensure that funds were available to compensate for the damages caused by the disaster.

"Since this is not a natural catastrophe but the damage was brought about by people, the damages must be paid first and foremost not by taxpayers but by those who caused the damage," Orban told lawmakers.

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Late last week, Bakonyi said that MAL Rt. had not noticed anything irregular at the site.

"The reservoir — which our men patrol daily — did not show any physical signs that something of this nature could happen," Bakonyi said.

Orban, however, said the government had other suspicions.

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"We have well-founded reasons to believe that there were people who knew about the dangerous weakening of the reservoir wall, but for personal reasons they thought it wasn't worth repairing and hoped there'd be no trouble," Orban said.

Orban told parliament four things need to happen: Damages must be paid to those affected by the spill; jobs at the plant must be saved; those responsible must be held accountable; and further risks at the company's sites should be identified.

"Hungary's largest ecological disaster was caused by human negligence, by allowing a hazardous material to escape from a plant built and operated by people," Orban said.

"We need to bring the company responsible for the red sludge spill under state control, and its assets under state closure, until all of these four tasks are handled," he told parliament.

On Sunday, MAL Rt. said it was willing to pay compensation "in proportion to its responsibility" for the damage caused by the deluge.

In Devecser, one of several towns hit by the flood a week ago and where many people are employed at the alumina plant, Bakonyi's detention was met by mixed feelings.

"Someone surely has to be held responsible, but he wasn't here when the reservoir was built so he can't carry all the blame," 56-year-old caterer Maria Kiss said. "I never heard any of the plant workers complain about him."

The body of the flood's eighth victim, an elderly woman, was found Monday afternoon near Devecser. The woman was the last person reported missing.

In Kolontar, the town closest to the damaged storage pool, which is 25 acres in size, construction continued of a new containment wall to protect the area in case of a new flood.

The wall — 610 yards long, with an average height of 8.8 feet — was being built of dolomite rock and clay, the National Disaster Management Directorate said.

It is intended to be sturdy enough to protect the unaffected parts of Kolontar, from which more than 700 residents have been evacuated, as well as towns farther from the reservoir, like Devecser, in case of another flood.

Image: Zoltan Bakonyi
Peter Mate  /  AFP - Getty Images file
General director of the Hungarian Aluminium Plant (MAL) Zoltan Bakonyi speaking to the journalists during a press conference in Ajka on Oct. 7.

Last week's sludge spill flooded three villages in less than an hour. Fifty people are still hospitalized, several in serious condition. About 184 million gallons of the sludge was released.

The damaged reservoir still contains 3.2 million cubic yards of sludge, but it no longer has a large layer of water on top, so any new spills are expected to move slower and travel less distance — probably no more than about a half-mile — than the first one did.

Environmental State Secretary Zoltan Illes said additional risks were centered on a reservoir next to the damaged one, which contained 26.4 million gallons of caustic liquid.

Authorities fear that if the cracks on the broken reservoir's northern wall continued to widen and the wall falls, the second storage pool could also break, releasing a caustic flow.

Illes said the new wall in Kolontar — which will be permanently incorporated into the town's landscape, with a bike path planned on its ridge — would withstand a flood even if the second reservoir burst.

Measurements taken in the past 24 hours showed no further movement of cracks on the northern wall, which experts have said is bound to collapse.

Health authorities warned the local population, as well as cleanup and construction crews, that the amount of red sludge dust in the air exceeded safe limits and said protective gear should be used.

In a statement on its website on Sunday, MAL said the walls of the reservoir met the prescribed rigidity standards, based on the findings of a technical survey carried out in 1995.

However, Gusztav Winkler, a professor at Budapest Technical University, who surveyed the site when the reservoir was being built 30 years ago, told Reuters the structure of the soil made the reservoir unstable.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Hungary makes arrests in sludge incident

  1. Closed captioning of: Hungary makes arrests in sludge incident

    >>> there has been an arrest in last week's deadly sludge spill in hungary. the head of the company responsible will be charged with criminal negligence, could face up to ten years in prison. meanwhile, that cleanup continues as workers race to prevent another spill, because new cracks appeared this weekend in the wall of the reservoir. some peer it's inevitable that a second spill of some sort could cause another wave of environmental harm.

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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Interactive: Tracking the sludge's path

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