Image: Leak at alumina plant seen in June
Bako Gabor  /  Interspect via AP
Interspect, a Hungarian aerial imagery company that also investigates environmental issues, said it took this photo last June showing a reddish outflow at one corner of the alumina waste reservoir in Kolontar, Hungary.
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updated 10/12/2010 2:20:49 PM ET 2010-10-12T18:20:49

An aerial photo taken months before a gigantic reservoir unleashed torrents of toxic sludge shows a faint red trail trickling through the container wall — part of a growing body of evidence that inspectors who gave the pit a clean bill of health may have missed warning signs.

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Police were examining the photo Tuesday as part of an investigation into how part of the wall containing the 350 million cubic feet of caustic slurry could have given way without structural weaknesses being detected by a team of inspectors from the government environmental agency who inspected the container pond less then two weeks before the spill.

Disaster commissioner Gyorgy Bakondi, appointed to the newly created post Monday night, said Tuesday the inspections were under investigation, including claims by environmental inspectors that "they had found everything in order."

As the police probe gathered steam, judicial authorities scheduled a court appearance for Zoltan Bakony, the managing director of the company that owned the reservoir, to decide whether he should be formally charged, if so, with what, and whether he should remain in custody.

The photo showing an apparent leak of red sludge on the northern wall of the reservoir — the same wall that partially collapsed eight days ago — was taken by Interspect, a Hungarian company that invests some of its profits on environmental projects, such as taking photos of locations in Hungary that could be at environmental risk.

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Interspect director Gabor Bako said he shot the photo June 11, nearly 4 months before the spill. He said the company shared the photo with universities and environmental groups "but no further steps were taken in the matter" until the wall collapsed freeing the caustic muck that flooded three west Hungarian villages about just over 100 miles from Budapest before being carried by local waterways into the Danube River.

Although the trickle seemed suspicious "we're not construction engineers or specialists who could interpret what the picture showed," he told The Associated Press, explaining the lack of action on the part of his company, MAL Rt. — or the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company.

Bakony, who was taken into police custody Monday, was scheduled to appear at a preliminary court hearing Wednesday convening at Veszprem, a western Hungarian city about 27 miles east of the partially collapsed containment pond.

A police statement issued Tuesday suggested Bakony was guilty of negligence, saying he did not prepare an emergency warning and rescue plan to be implemented in case of an incident like the sludge spill.

There was no official information on what Bakony told police, with law enforcement officials declining to divulge details on the progress of their investigation a week after the start of their probe. By Tuesday night, police had not made promised return calls to the AP.

But according to the daily Blikk, which is considered to have good police connections, a lead engineer at MAL Rt., told police that the firm's top management was aware — but kept quiet — about the risks of a breach of the reservoir for an unspecified period.

The tabloid also revealed that in the 1980s, before the fall of the Iron Curtain, Bakony's father, Arpad Bakony, was the head of the environmental department at the ministry of industry — a predecessor of the present-day inspectorate — and received several state awards for his work.

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In an initial reaction after the spill, Zoltan Bakony said the reservoir was patrolled daily and "did not show any physical signs that something of this nature could happen." But Prime Minister Viktor Orban suggested that preliminary investigations revealed negligence playing a part.

"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.

Bakondi, the disaster commissioner, said that police had taken over security tasks at all premises belonging to the company and that production at the plant could restart during the weekend, although a final decision had yet to be made.

Bakondi leads an 18-member supervisory committee, who will have to approve practically everything happening at MAL from now on.

The government rejected claims that the government was using the disaster as an excuse for ruling by decree.

"This is not the nationalization of the company," government spokeswoman Anna Nagy said. "It is placing it under government supervision until the catastrophe is resolved."

Asked, however, what activities the company could carry out without the consent of the supervisory board, Bakondi answered, "Nothing."

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A corner of the reservoir at the alumina plant in Ajka, 100 miles southwest of Budapest, the capital, collapsed last Monday, releasing an estimated 184 million gallons of a highly caustic byproduct of alumina production, which is then used to make aluminum.

The Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant, which began operating in 1943, was sold to private investors in the 1990s in the wake of the collapse of communism.

MAL has a 12 percent market share in Europe of alumina production and 4 percent globally.

It says it spent $153 million in the past decade on maintenance and renovation work.

Media reports say it had revenues of nearly $147 million in 2009 and $253 million in 2007.

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

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

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.

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