Image: Poisoned perch on bank of Tisa River
Jaroslav Pap  /  AP
A number of perch poisoned by cyanide lie on the bank of Tisa River, in Becej, about 75 miles  north of Belgrade, in Vojvodina province, Yugoslavia, in February 2000. The spill originated in Romania where a dam at the Baia Mare gold mine overflowed.
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updated 10/11/2010 5:42:55 PM ET 2010-10-11T21:42:55

Abandoned mines in Romania leech heavy-metal contaminated waters into rivers. A Hungarian chemical plant produces more than 100,000 tons of environmental toxins a year. Soil in eastern Slovakia is contaminated with cancer-producing PCBs.

The flood of toxic sludge in Hungary is but one of the ecological horrors that lurk in eastern Europe 20 years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. While the end of communism came with a widespread cleanup, the massive spill of caustic muck serves as a wake-up call for a region dotted with disasters waiting to happen.

Much of Eastern Europe is free of many of its worst environmental sins with the help of Western funds and conditions imposed on Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic in exchange for membership in the European Union.

Still, the sludge has focused attention on less-visible dangers that survived various cleanups in the region.

The caustic spill — Hungary's worst ecological disaster — has also raised questions about whether investors who took over old Soviet factories from the state 20 years ago are at fault for not spending enough on safety features.

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Eight people died in the Oct. 4 deluge of red sludge from a 24-acre storage pool where a byproduct of aluminum production is kept.

Calls for greater cleanup efforts apply not only to Hungary, which considered itself ahead of most of the former Soviet bloc in fixing ecological harm, but also to neighbors like Serbia that hope to join the 27-nation bloc.

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"The scary thing is we didn't know this existed and there could be other ones," says Andreas Bechham, director of the WW Danube-Carpahtian program, alluding to the Hungarian spill. "How many other facilities and sites are there that could be a ticking time bomb?"

Environmentalists warn of other potential disasters from seven storage ponds about 60 miles northwest of Budapest that hold 12 million tons of sludge accumulated since 1945 — more than 10 times the amount that spilled this week.

"If the gates break there, much of Hungary's drinking water would be endangered," says WWF official Martin Geiger.

Other sites — like the Borsodchem plant in northeast Hungary — pose similar risks to ground water, and more. That factory churns out 100,000 tons of the environmental toxin PVC containing dioxin, the same poison released into the air by a factory explosion in Seveso, Italy 34 years ago that killed hundreds of animals and turned much of the town into a no-man's land.

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Slovakia, Hungary's northern neighbor, has its own toxic problem, among them a huge area in the east of the country still contaminated with PCBs from earlier production of the chemical during communist times.

Government officials in Bulgaria, alarmed by the Hungarian spill, have ordered safety checks of a dozen waste dams — huge reservoir walls that hold back often heavy metal-laden waste that are prone to leaks or collapse

In Bulgaria's most serious waste dam accident, walls at a lead and copper processing factory in Zgorigrad broke in 1966, releasing a sludge flood that killed 488 people and left much of the immediate area uninhabitable.

Interactive: Hungary sludge (on this page)

Activists say smaller leaks are not uncommon. Ecologist Daniel Popov said toxic products leaked into the Topolnitsa River in central Bulgaria last spring when sludge spilled from a storage pond containing waste from copper ore, killing fish.

The inspections are only for operational waste dams, prompting criticism from environmental activists.

Of particular concern, says a WWF report, is a still operating dam near the northwestern town of Chiprovtsi in north west Bulgaria because it is directly on the Ogosta River, one of the major Danube tributaries in Bulgaria.

Hungary's sludge ponds are a legacy of the Soviet era, when Moscow designated that country as the main producer of alumina, used in the manufacture of aluminum. But reservoirs full of heavy-metal laced red sludge are also a threat elsewhere.

A huge storage pond full of corrosive sludge in Romania is part of the landscape of the gritty Danube port of Tulcea. WWF activists say leaks and airborne pollution from the site is responsible for fish and bird deaths nearby.

The Danube — Europe's second-longest waterway — appears to have escaped immediate harm from the recent Hungarian spill. The same kind of spill at the Tulcea plant would devastate a vast stretch of lakes and marshes at the Danube's entry into the Black Sea that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It hosts more than 300 species of birds and 45 freshwater species of fish.

Memories of an environmental disaster a decade ago in Romania have triggered emergency measures for Tulcea and other suspect sites. That's when a reservoir burst at a gold mine in the northwestern town of Baia Mare on Jan. 30, 2000, spilling cyanide-laden water into local rivers and killing tons of fish and other wildlife.

Romania's Environment Minister Laszlo Borbely said last week that his country is accelerating cleanup plans for 1,000 contaminated sites.

"We must be very cautious now after what happened here in Baia Mare and now in Hungary," he told reporters at a news conference in the city of Targu Mures on Friday. He said Romania could access up to 100 million euros of EU funds to decontaminate pollution sites.

Some of the communist Eastern Europe's worst environmental horrors were in Romania — among them Copsa Mica, where TV images of black toxic soot drifting from chimneys of a rubber-dye factory onto houses, fields, grazing sheep and townspeople shocked the world in 1989.

International outrage contributed to the plant's closure in 1993. But "historic pollution" with heavy metals from the 40 years that was rubber-dye plant was functioning continues to foul the air. Life expectancy in the area is 9 years lower than the national average of 72.

In East Europe, the Danube is shared by seven countries, and it has been the victim of toxic spills even before Hungary's caustic red muck.

Among the worst incidents came 11 years ago during NATO's bombing of Serbia, when warplanes targeted fertilizer and vinyl chloride manufacturing plants and an oil refinery in the town of Pancevo, near Belgrade, releasing mercury, dioxins and other deadly compounds into the river.

Foreign funding after the war allowed authorities to contain some of the leaks, but sporadic emissions of toxic gases continue to drive air pollution above accepted levels.

Also near Belgrade, an open pit in Obrenovac just 100 meters (yards) from the Sava — a Danube tributary — contains millions of tons of coal ash from the Nikola Tesla Coal Power Plant. The air has unhealthy levels of carbon black, also known as lampblack, for as much as a third of the year. Sprinklers to prevent the ash from becoming airborne are of limited effectiveness on windy days.

Croatia lists nine locations where dangerous waste has been deposited for decades that still need to be cleaned, said Toni Vidan of the group Green Action.

In Vranjic near Split, a factory producing asbestos closed several years ago, but the waste — about 7,000 cubic meters (9,100 cubic yards) of material mixed with asbestos — hasn't been completely cleaned up. Two years ago, the presence of asbestos in Vranjic was three times greater than allowed. Even today, residents say particles of asbestos are in the air when the wind blows.

___

Associated Press writers Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, Karel Janicek in the Czech Republic. Snjezana Vukic in Zagreb, Croatia, and Alina Wolfe Murray in Bucharest, Romania, contributed to this report. Jahn reported from Vienna.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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.

Interactive: Hungary sludge

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