Second toxic spill feared as Hungarian reservoir wall cracks

Thousands told to be ready to evacuate at a moment's notice as thick wave of sludge is likely to descend on already polluted land

The wall of a reservoir holding the remaining 500,000 cubic metres of toxic sludge at a Hungarian alumina plant has cracked and could soon break, unleashing a fresh corrosive torrent. The 715 residents of Kolontar, the first town in the path of any new spill, have been evacuated, and 5,400 people in Devecser have been told to pack belongings in a single bag and be ready to leave at a moment's notice.

In a statement yesterday, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, said: "Last night, the interior minister informed us that cracks have appeared in the northern wall of the reservoir, whose corner collapsed. The detached parts of the dam are growing apart. The distance between them widened by 7cm from late last night until this morning so it is very likely that we have to reckon on this wall collapsing." Crews are now building a new dam up to 16ft high in Kolontar to ward off any fresh inundation, and more than 300 soldiers, 127 vehicles, and five trains are on standby to evacuate the larger town of Devecser.

These latest, troubling developments came five days after Monday's initial spill sent 184 million gallons of the red sludge into three villages and the adjoining countryside. Within only a few hours, the spill was not far short of the volume of oil leached into the Gulf of Mexico by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. It claimed seven lives and left 150 injured. The sludge, a by-product of bauxite mining containing arsenic and lead, entered the Marcal river, killing all life. It then passed into the Danube, one of Europe's most important waterways.

There are conflicting reports of the effects of the disaster. Fears that the Danube's fish, molluscs, and plants could be killed, and drinking water contaminated, have been allayed by tests of the river's water quality. These, taken every few hours, show that the concentration of heavy metals has dropped to the level allowed in drinking water. Hungary's disaster agency said the pH level of the water where the slurry entered the Danube was less than nine – well below the 13.5 measured earlier in local waterways near the site of the catastrophe, and sufficiently diluted to prevent any biological damage, a minister said.

Yet Greenpeace officials said that tests they have commissioned of the sludge's effect on farmland show "surprisingly high" concentrations of arsenic and mercury. Their analysis suggested that roughly 50 tons of arsenic, 300 tons of chrome and half a ton of mercury was unleashed by the spill. The group's officials said the detected arsenic concentration was twice the amount normally found in so-called red mud, a waste product in aluminum production. Analysis of water in a canal near the spill also found arsenic levels 25 times the limit for drinking water, Greenpeace added.

The concern now is that any further collapse in the reservoir walls would liberate industrial slurry with far higher concentrations of toxins. Hungary's environmental chief, Zoltan Illes, said that dry warmer weather would turn the caustic mud to airborne dust, which can cause respiratory problems. Emergency officials urged residents to wear face masks.

A more sanguine view of the possible long-term pollution was taken by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which reiterated on Friday that the red sludge remained hazardous due to its caustic alkalinity, but that its heavy metal concentrations were not considered dangerous. Villagers, of course, were in no mood to be pacified. "The academy can say whatever it wants," fumed Barbara Szalai Szita, who lives in Devecser, one of the hardest-hit villages. "All I know is that if I spend 30 minutes outside I get a foul taste in my mouth and my tongue feels strange."

Many people had suffered from burns and eye irritations caused by lead and other corrosive elements in the red mud. The flood, estimated at about 700,000 cubic metres, swept cars off roads and damaged bridges and houses. More than 150 victims were treated in hospital, and around a dozen are still in a serious condition. On Friday, 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 on the outskirts of Devecser. The unidentified victims were likely to be two of three Kolontar residents who were previously listed as missing.

The location of the bodies suggested they were swept over two miles by the torrent, and other residents testified to the power of the toxic surge. Kolontar resident Etelka Stump said: "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. But I could hardly breathe because that air, that smell, that froth really hit me." Many inhabitants of the town insist they will not return to their homes.

It is still not known what caused a section of the reservoir to collapse on Monday. However, meteorologists at AccuWeather.com noted that spring and summer rains across eastern Europe were more than 200 per cent above normal and said the walls holding back the sludge may have been weakened by the rainfall. MAL Rt., the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company that owns the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant where the spill occurred has rejected criticism it should have taken more precautions.

This is not the view of the Prime Minister. Mr Orban said he would inform parliament about the findings of an investigation on Monday and reiterated his view that the disaster was likely the result of human error. "We all are astonished because we are not aware of any information that could reduce [the likelihood of] human responsibility. My point is that behind this tragedy, there must have been some human errors and mistakes." There will be "the toughest possible consequences" to ensure such a disaster does not recur, he added.

At the plant itself, production has been suspended since Tuesday, and Hungarian police have confiscated documents from the company. The National Investigation Office was looking into whether carelessness was a factor in the disaster.

MAL has said that it would like to restart production at its alumina plant with a new sludge containment pond. Lajos Tolnay, chairman of MAL, said that if the company were to stop operation, 3,000 jobs would be lost at the firm and at business partners. He said the plant could safely resume operations. A decision will be taken tomorrow.

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