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Anger in Hungary, fear downstream as toxic contamination spreads

Hungarian PM's shock at 'unprecedented ecological catastrophe'

The Red Tide reached the Blue Danube yesterday, when the flood of crimson toxic sludge from a Hungarian industrial accident began contaminating Europe's second-longest river.

Amid fears of a large-scale international pollution disaster, officials of several countries through which the Danube flows downstream of the pollution entry point, including Croatia, Serbia and Romania, were testing the river every few hours last night, while in Hungary itself emergency crews were trying to dilute the effluent and its damaging high alkalinity.

The pollution spill killed four people and injured more than 150 when it first occurred on Monday near the village of Kolontar, 45 miles from the Danube, and wiped out all the fish in the river Marcal, the first stream it hit. There were hopes that the sheer volume of water in the Danube itself – up to 350,000 cubic feet per second – would dilute the contamination sufficiently to prevent a catastrophe. Furthermore, the 1,770-mile long river – only the Volga is longer is Europe – is not a major source of drinking water in its middle reaches as it is already significantly polluted.

Yet the fact that the wave of lurid red mineral sludge had reached Johann Strauss's Beautiful Blue Danube, the river which lent its name to the most romantic of waltzes, was a powerful symbolic reminder that for all the advances in green technology, old-fashioned industrial pollution still has the power to wreak havoc with the environment on an enormous scale.

The sludge, a by-product of the refining of bauxite into alumina, the basic material for manufacturing aluminium, was being held in a huge containment reservoir at Kolontar, more than 1,000ft long and 1,500ft wide, part of which collapsed in circumstances which are still unclear. It released an estimated 35 million cubic feet of the waste which poured through Kolontar and two other villages. It devastated smaller water courses and finally reached the Danube, upstream of Budapest, yesterday morning.

It emerged yesterday that the plant was placed on a 2006 list of sites which threatened to contaminate the Danube if there was an accident. The plant was one of 32 in Hungary identified by the authorities and should have been subject to greater inspections, said the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River.

The list was drawn up after an accident in 2000 saw cyanide leak into the Danube killing large numbers of fish. The commission, which coordinates conservation efforts of the countries through which the river runs, said it was waiting to hear what checks were carried out at the Hungarian plant. "Whatever was done was not sufficient," said Executive Secretary Philip Weller. "Why that was the case, I can't tell you now."

Hungary's Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, visited the three villages yesterday and declared the worst-hit area a write-off, saying he saw "no sense" in rebuilding in the same location. Local officials said 34 homes in Kolontar were completely uninhabitable, but furious residents said the disaster had destroyed the whole village of 800 by making their land worthless. Mr Orban told villagers: "If this had happened at night then everyone here would have died."

He suggested someone was clearly to blame, angrily exclaiming: "This is so irresponsible that it is impossible to find words." He stressed that the disaster could not have had natural causes, adding: "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."

MAL Zrt, owner of the Ajkai Timfoldgyar alumina plant and the burst reservoir, said on Tuesday there had been no sign of the impending disaster, adding that the last inspection of the reservoir on Monday had shown nothing wrong.

Tibor Dobson, a spokesman for a Hungarian rescue agency, said late yesterday afternoon that there were reports of sporadic fish death in the Raba and the Mosoni-Danube rivers, affected by the spill earlier, and confirmed that all fish had died in the smaller Marcal, which was hit first.

Crews were working to reduce the alkalinity of the spill, which when it reached the Raba, the Mosoni-Danube and the Danube itself, was still about pH 9 – above the normal, harmless level of between 6 and 8, said Mr Dobson. He said it had been tested earlier at a pH level of 13. No dead fish had yet been spotted in the Danube, he said. However, in Gyor, a city in north-west Hungary where the Raba flows into the Mosoni-Danube, observers reported white froth on the river and lots of small dead fish washed ashore. Ambulance crews were distributing leaflets calling on residents not to fish or eat fish from the river, and to avoid contact with the water.

Gabor Figeczky, the Hungarian branch director of the World Wide Fund for Nature, who visited the scene of the disaster along with experts, said the impact on the Marcal was worse than expected. It was hoped the alkalinity would drop once it reached the Raba, a bigger river, but it was still between pH 9 and 10.

There was more reassuring news when Hungary's most prestigious organisation of scientists and researchers said that tests of the red sludge showed no dangerous levels of heavy metals. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences said tests of samples showed the heavy metal concentrations did "not come close" to levels considered dangerous to the environment. The academy said the sludge was still dangerous, but suggested that the main menace to health and the environment came from the slurry's caustic characteristics. Downstream from the disaster site, the Danube flows through or touches on Croatian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Moldovan and Ukrainian territory en route to the Black Sea.