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Wave of toxic sludge reaches the Danube River

Toxic red sludge which burst out of a metals plant reservoir — killing at least four people and causing serious burns to others — reached the mighty River Danube Thursday.
Image: Rescue team searches for missing bodies possibly washed away by flooding toxic mud near the village of Kolontar, Hungary,.
A rescue team searches for missing bodies possibly washed away by toxic mud near the village of Kolontar, Hungary on Thursday.Bela Szandelszky / AP
/ Source: news services

Toxic red sludge that burst out of a metals plant reservoir — killing at least four people and causing serious burns to others — reached the mighty River Danube Thursday.

The European Union and environmental officials had feared an environmental catastrophe affecting half a dozen nations if the red sludge, a waste product of making aluminum, contaminated the 1,775-mile Danube, the second longest in Europe.

However an Hungarian emergency official said Thursday that no immediate damage to the river was evident.

The reservoir break Monday disgorged a toxic torrent into local creeks that flow into waterways connected to the Danube.

Creeks in Kolontar, the closest town to the spill site and about 45 miles south of the Danube, were swollen ochre red Wednesday and villagers said they were devoid of fish.

The red sludge reached the western branch of the Danube early Thursday, Hungarian rescue agency spokesman Tibor Dobson told the state MTI news agency.

He did not address concerns that the caustic slurry might contain toxic metals, but said its pH content had been reduced to the point where it was unlikely to cause further damage to the environment.

Dobson said the pH content, which officials earlier said was at a highly alkaline 13 on a scale of zero to 14, was now under 10 and no dead fish had been spotted where the slurry was entering the Danube.

The National Disaster Management Directorate, in a separate statement, said the pH value was at 9.3 and constantly decreasing. Normal ph levels for surface water range from 6.5 to 8.5.

Waterways devastated
But the sludge devastated the less mighty Marcal River.

"Life in the Marcal River has been extinguished," Dobson told The Associated Press, referring to the 25-mile stretch of the river that carried the red waste from Kolontar into the Raba River, which then flows into the Danube.

He said emergency crews were pouring plaster and acetic acid — vinegar — into the Raba-Danube meeting point to lower the slurry's pH value.

"The main effort is now being concentrated on the Raba and the Danube," he said. "That's what has to be saved."

Dobson said the lack of immediate environmental damage to the Danube or Raba was "by no means a victory declaration," cautioning that dead fish could still turn up shortly.

South of Hungary, the Danube flows through Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Moldova before emptying into the Black Sea.

Daily water tests
At the Croatian village of Batina, the first site after the Danube leaves Hungary, experts were taking water samples Thursday which they will repeat daily for the next week, the state-run news agency HINAS reported.

In Romania, water levels were reported safe Thursday, with testing being carried out every three hours, said Romanian Waters spokeswoman Ana Maria Tanase.

She said the Danube water had a pH of 8.5, which was within normal levels, but tests were being done to check for heavy metals.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited the three villages coated by the red sludge Thursday and declared the worst-hit area a write-off, saying he sees "no sense" in rebuilding in the same location.

"It is difficult to find the words. Had this happened at night, everybody would be dead," Orban told reporters.

He reiterated that 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."

Local officials said 34 homes in Kolontar were unlivable. However, furious residents said the disaster had destroyed the whole community of 800 by making their land valueless.

'A dead town'
Angry villagers gathered outside the mayor's office late Wednesday and berated a senior official of MAL Rt., the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company that owns the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant, demanding compensation.

"The whole settlement should be bulldozed into the ground," bellowed Janos Potza. "There's no point for anyone to go back home."

"Those who can, will move out of Kolontar. From now on, this is a dead town," fumed Beata Gasko Monek.

Others relived their experience in the deluge.

"I hung in the sludge for 45 minutes... It had a strong current that almost swept me away but I managed to hang on to a strong piece of wood of the pigsty," another Kolontor resident, Etelka Stump, said. "But I could hardly breathe because that air, that smell, that froth really hit me."

Disaster crews, military personnel and villagers continued to clear away rubble and search for the missing people.

It is still not known why part of the reservoir collapsed. Authorities have ordered a criminal inquiry into the accident, which injured 120 and left three people missing in addition to the four known to have died. It is estimated the torrent included 35 million cubic feet of toxic waste.

A spokeswoman for the National Police said investigators would look into whether on-the-job carelessness was a factor.

The huge reservoir, more than 1,000 feet by 1,500 feet, was no longer leaking and a triple-tiered protective wall was being built around its damaged section. Guards have been posted at the breach to give an early warning in case of any new emergency.

Water supplies may be affected
The sludge spill is "one of the top three environmental disasters in Europe in the last 20 or 30 years," said Herwit Schuster, a spokesman for Greenpeace International.

The International Commission for the Protection of the Danube, which manages the river and its tributaries, said the sludge spill could trigger long-term damaging effects for both wildlife and humans.

"It is a very serious accident and has potential implications for other countries," Philip Weller, the group's executive secretary, said from Brussels.

Weller said factories and towns along the Danube may have to shut down their water intake systems. He said large fish in the Danube could ingest any heavy metals carried downstream, potentially endangering people who eat them.

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 dried red clay-like soil.

Hungarian company officials have insisted the sludge is not considered hazardous waste, according to EU standards. The company has also rejected criticism that it should have taken more precautions at the reservoir.

Alumina plants are scattered around the world, with the 12 largest concentrated in Australia, Brazil and China. The plant in Hungary ranks 53rd in the world in production, according to industry statistics.