Hungary’s national investigators take over probe into toxic sludge disaster, EU offers to help

By Pablo Gorondi, AP
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Hungary opens criminal probe into sludge disaster

KOLONTAR, Hungary — Hungary’s top investigative agency opened a criminal probe into the toxic sludge flood Wednesday while the European Union and environmental groups warned the disaster could spread down the Danube and have long-term consequences for half a dozen nations.

Hundreds of people had to be evacuated after a gigantic sludge reservoir burst Monday at a metals plant in Ajka, a town 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of Budapest, the capital.

At least four people were killed, three are still missing and 120 were injured as the unstoppable torrent inundated homes, swept cars off roads, damaged bridges and disgorged an estimated 1 million cubic meters (35 million cubic feet) of toxic waste onto several nearby towns.

It was still not known Wednesday why part of the reservoir failed. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said authorities were caught off guard by the disaster since the plant and reservoir had been inspected only two weeks earlier and no irregularities had been found.

Police spokeswoman Monika Benyi told The Associated Press that the decision by National Police Chief Jozsef Hatala to take over the probe reflected the importance and the complexity of the sludge disaster. She said a criminal case had been opened into possible on-the-job carelessness.

The huge reservoir was no longer leaking Wednesday but a triple-tiered protective wall was being built around the reservoir’s damaged area. Interior Minister Sandor Pinter said guards have been posted at the site ready to give early warning in case of any new emergency.

The European Union said it feared the toxic flood could turn into an ecological disaster for several nations along the mighty Danube and said it stood ready to offer help if Hungarian authorities needed it.

“This is a serious environmental problem,” EU spokesman Joe Hennon told the AP in Brussels. “We are concerned, not just for the environment in Hungary, but this could potentially cross borders.”

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

Greenpeace was even more emphatic.

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.

Greenpeace workers took sludge samples on Tuesday and were having them tested in labs in Vienna and Budapest to find out how contaminated the sludge is by heavy metals.

“It is clear that 40 sq. kilometers (15.5 square miles) of mostly agricultural land is polluted and destroyed for a long time,” Schuster said. “If there are substances like arsenic and mercury, that would affect river systems and ground water on long-term basis.”

Emergency workers were pouring 1,000 tons of plaster into the nearby Marcal River to try to bind the sludge and keep it from flowing into the Danube, 45 miles (72 kilometers) away. Pinter said engineers considered diverting the Marcal into nearby fields but decided not to, fearing the damage from the diversion would not outweigh the benefits.

Workers were extracting sludge from the river and using plaster and acid to neutralize the toxic chemicals. Initial pH measurements showed the Marcal was at an extremely alkaline value of 13 after the spill, Pinter said.

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

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

But Kolontar mayor Karoly Tily said he cannot give a “reassuring answer” to residents, who fear a repeat of Monday’s calamity.

The International Commission for the Protection of the Danube, which manages the river, agreed that sludge spill could certainly trigger long-term damaging effects for wildlife in and along the river.

“It is a very serious accident and has potential implications for other countries,” Philip Weller, the executive secretary, said from Brussels.

The Danube, at 1,775 miles (2,850 kilometers) long, is Europe’s second largest river and holds one of the continent’s greatest treasuries of wildlife. 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, where the disaster occurred, are still producing waste near some of its tributaries.

Weller said the commission’s early warning alarm system was triggered by the spill, which means factories and towns along the Danube may have to shut down their water intake systems from the river. The Vienna-based commission was waiting for further details of the spill from Hungarian authorities, he said.

He said large fish in the Danube could ingest the metals and then transfer them to humans who eat the fish.

The ecological catastrophe has already left a trail of shattered lives in its wake.

There was no stopping the avalanche of toxic red sludge when it rammed into Kati Holtzer’s home in Kolontar: It smashed through the main door and trapped the woman and her 3-year-old boy in a churning sea of acrid waste.

She saved her son by placing him on a sofa that was floating in the muck. She then called her husband Balazs, who was working in Austria, to say goodbye.

“We’re going to die,” she told him, chest-deep in sludge.

After the terror came the pain: Holtzer and her two rescuers were among those suffering from biting chemical burns. Half the house was painted red from the sludge.

Worst of all, her fox terrier Mazli — “Luck” in Hungarian — lay dead in the yard Wednesday, still chained to a stake.

Associated Press writers Greg Katz in London and Alison Mutler in Vienna contributed to this report.

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