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Hungarian town evacuated over fears of new sludge flood

The Hungarian town of Kolontar near the toxic red sludge reservoir that flooded the area and killed at least seven people was evacuated today over fears of a new leak of the dangerous heavy metal waste, officials said.

Experts fear the walls of the reservoir may weaken further, disaster management spokesman Tibor Dobson told The Associated Press. No new waste, however, has escaped from the huge container so far, Dobson said. The evacuation of the town of 800 people began before dawn.

In neighboring Devecser, with a population of 5,300 and next after Kolontar in the likely path of a new sludge deluge, police asked residents to put their most essential belongings into a single bag and prepare for possible evacuation.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban was scheduled to hold a news conference in Ajka, a city near Kolontar where some of its residents were being transported in buses.

In addition to the fatalities, more than 120 were injured when the walls of a reservoir at an alumina plant gave way Monday and up to 184 million gallons of toxic waste flooded several towns in western Hungary. The amount was not much less in under an hour than the 200 million gallons the blown-out BP oil well gushed into the Gulf of Mexico over several months.

But the concentration of toxic heavy metals where Hungary's red sludge spill entered the Danube has dropped to the level allowed in drinking water, authorities said, easing fears that Europe's second longest river would be significantly polluted.

The red sludge devastated creeks and rivers near the spill site and entered the Danube on Thursday, moving downstream toward Croatia, Serbia and Romania. Monitors were taking samples every few hours yesterday to measure damage from the spill but the sheer volume of water in the mighty Danube appeared to be blunting the red sludge's immediate impact.

Test results released by Hungary's disaster agency show the pH level of the water where the slurry entered the Danube was under 9 — well below the 13.5 measured earlier in local waterways near the site of the catastrophe. That is diluted enough to prevent any biological damage, Interior Minister Sandor Pinter said.

Despite the apparent good news, the risk of pervasive and lasting environmental damage remained at the site of the spill, with Greenpeace presenting laboratory tests that it said showed high concentrations of heavy metals in the sludge.

The disaster's confirmed death toll rose from four to seven. An 81-year-old man died from injuries sustained in the torrent and two bodies were found yesterday on the outskirts of Devecser. The unidentified victims were likely two of three Kolontar residents still missing.

The location of the bodies suggested they were swept over two miles by the torrent.