Emergency crews struggle to clear toxic red sludge from towns in Hungary

Emergency workers and construction crews in hazmat gear swept through several Hungarian towns Wednesday, straining to clear roads and homes coated by thick red sludge and caustic muddy water.

The European Union, meanwhile, feared that the toxic flood could turn into an ecological disaster for half a dozen European nations — those downriver from Hungary along the mighty Danube — and said it stood ready to offer help.

"This is a serious environmental problem," EU spokesman Joe Hennon told The Associated Press in Brussels on Wednesday. "We are concerned, not just for the environment in Hungary, but this could potentially cross borders."

Hundreds of people were evacuated Monday after a gigantic sludge reservoir burst its banks at a metals plant in Ajka, a town 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of Budapest, the capital. The torrent inundated homes, swept cars off roads and damaged bridges, disgorging an estimated 1 million cubic meters (35.3 million cubic feet) of toxic waste onto several nearby towns.

Hungarian officials have declared a state of emergency, calling the spill "an ecological disaster" that could threaten the Danube, one of Europe's great waterways. At least four people have been killed, three were still missing and 120 injured, many with burns.

In Kolontar, the town nearest to the plant, a military construction crew worked to assemble a pontoon bridge Wednesday across a toxic stream so residents could briefly return to their homes and rescue belongings.

For two days, workers in full hazmat gear with respirators have contrasted sharply with locals, who have salvaged possessions with little more than rubber gloves as protection. Women with pants coated in the red mud have been clearing the muck away from their homes with snow shovels.

Red sludge is a byproduct of the refining of bauxite into alumina, the basic material for manufacturing aluminum. It contains heavy metals and is toxic if ingested. Treated sludge is often stored in ponds where the water eventually evaporates, leaving behind a dried red clay-like soil.

It was still not known Wednesday why part of the reservoir failed, unleashing such an unstoppable torrent. Kolontar mayor Karoly Tily said he cannot give a "reassuring answer" to residents who feared a repeat of Monday's calamity.

Hungarian environmentalist Gergely Simon said the sludge had been accumulating in this reservoir for decades and was extremely alkaline, with a pH value of about 13 — nearly equivalent to lye — which caused it to burn the skin of dozens of residents.

Emergency workers also poured 1,000 tons of plaster into the Marcal River in an attempt to bind the sludge and keep it from flowing on to the Danube, 45 miles (72 kilometers) away.

At 1,775 miles (2,850 kilometers) long, the Danube is Europe's second largest river and holds one of the continent's greatest treasuries of wildlife. South of Hungary, the Danube flows through Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Moldova before emptying into the Black Sea.

The river has already been the focus of a multibillion dollar post-communist cleanup, but high-risk industries such as Hungary's Ajkai Timfoldgyar alumina plant are still producing waste near some of its tributaries.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban acknowledged that authorities were caught off guard by the disaster, saying the plant and reservoir had been inspected only two weeks earlier and no irregularities had been found.

MAL Rt., the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company that owns the Ajkai plant, has insisted that, according to European Union standards, the red sludge is not considered hazardous waste. The company has also rejected criticism that it should have taken more precautions to shore up the reservoir, a huge structure more than 1,000 feet (300 meters) long and 500 yards (450 meters) wide.

Hennon, the EU spokesman, said the company did have a license to operate and added "we have nothing to indicate there was anything wrong with it."

Hennon said the EU has funds available to deal with natural disasters, but it first needs to assess whether the spill is a natural disaster or a man-made calamity, which will determine how much liability the company has.

"There are quite a few open questions and it's a bit too early to say exactly what the situation will be," Hennon said.

The current European safety standards came into effect in 2007 and now the EU will look whether anything needs to be changed, he said.

"We are going to look very carefully at the outcome of what caused this, what the effects are, and then we will assess whether we do need to look again at the legislation," Hennon said.

Erzsebet Veingartner was in her kitchen when the 12-foot (3.6-meter)-high wave of red slurry hit, sweeping away everything in its path.

"I looked outside and all I saw was the stream swelling like a huge wave," the 61-year-old widow said as she surveyed her backyard, still under 6 feet (1.8 meters) of noxious muck.

"I lost all my chickens, my ducks, my Rottweiler, and my potato patch. My late husband's tools and machinery were in the shed and it's all gone," sobbed the woman. "I have a winter's worth of firewood in the basement and it's all useless now."


Associated Press writer George Jahn in Vienna and Business Writer Jon Fahey contributed to this report.

Source: AP News

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