Eight Dead in Hungarian Sludge Spill, Company Boss Arrested

Eight Dead in Hungarian Sludge Spill, Company Boss Arrested

BUDAPEST, Hungary, October 11, 2010 (ENS) – The eighth person killed by the red toxic sludge that spilled from a aluminum plant in western Hungary has been found near the village of Devecser, disaster control spokesman Tibor Dobson said today.

The body was found a week after the waste impoundment reservoir of the Magyar Aluminium ZRt plant in the town of Ajka broke on October 4, triggering Hungary’s worst ecological disaster.

An aerial view of part of the caustic sludge spill (Photo by MTI courtesy Hungary State Secretary for Government Communication)

The broken reservoir released about one million cubic metres of caustic red sludge that rolled through three nearby villages in a two-meter (six-foot) high wave, killing eight people, injuring more than 150 others and damaging at least 280 homes.

The pollution reached some tributaries of the Danube, Europe’s second largest waterway, but pollution of the Danube itself has been contained as crews poured cement into tributary waters to hold back the sludge.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban told Parliament today that the managing director of MAL Zrt, Zoltan Bakonyi, has been arrested and will be held for 72 hours while government takes control of his company.

Orban said the company will be liable for the damage caused. “We need to hold the company responsible for the red sludge spill under state control and its assets under state closure,” he told parliament.

Orban also said the safe resumption of production at the plant is in the public interest and is needed to save the jobs of thousands of workers.

The Prime Minister expressed his condolences to all the victims, the families of the deceased and everyone who suffered any losses. “We shall not abandon them,” he said.

Another wall of the Magyar Aluminium reservoir is cracked. (Photo by Varga Gyorgy/MTI courtesy Government of Hungary)

Bakonyi said before his arrest that the company had “observed every regulation to the letter.” A statement on the company’s website says the reservoir walls met the prescribed standards, based on a technical survey conducted in 1995.

Nevertheless, fears of a second spill arose Friday when a 54-centimetre-wide crack was found on another wall of the reservoir. Crews are racing the rain to finish an emergency dam in Kolontar that might hold back a second spill.

The 620-meter long dam with an average height of 2.75 meters is built from contamination-free clay which will be covered in stone. Government officials say it will not be dismantled later. Instead, it will be integrated into the character of the village by constructing a bike path on it.

The damaged northern wall of the reservoir cannot be saved Environment Secretary Zoltan Illes told reporters near Kolontar on Sunday.

Experts say a second spill could be even more toxic than the first because much of what has already spilled was water, leaving the remaining waste more concentrated.

About 7,000 people were evacuated from the nearest village, Kolontar, over the weekend, and residents of Devecser have been told to pack their bags and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

But officials said today there had been no widening of the cracks overnight. The National Disaster Management Directorate said that measurements taken in the past 24 hours showed no further movement of cracks on the northern reservoir wall.

Protected from the caustic sludge, a worker cleans a street in Devecser. October 5, 2010 (Photo by Gergely Botar courtesy Government of Hungary)
Red aluminum waste sludge spreads across western Hungary (Photo courtesy WWF-Hungary)

Gusztav Winkler, an assistant professor at Budapest’s Technical University, said Friday that one of the reservoir’s dams had been built on the conjunction of two types of soil. He said that the rupture had occurred exactly at the point where the two soil types meet, and speculated that a sudden force, such as an extremely strong gust of wind, likely contributed to the rupture.

Officials reprt that the entire aquatic life in the River Marcal has been wiped out by the caustic spill, which contains heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic and chromium.

Crews are still pouring gypsum into the Marcal River to bind the red sludge and keep it from flowing towards the Danube. The National Disaster Management General Directorate says it is prepared for dealing with another spill. Gypsum supply is logistically secured, acetic acid is available and airborne intervention units are on standby. Neither the Raba River, nor the Mosoni-Danube or the Great Danube have been affected by pollution.

A foundation set up by Hungarian-born American businessman George Soros has offered US$1 million for defense and reconstruction work in the villages flooded by toxic sludge, according to a statement sent to MTI on Friday.

Soros, the chairman of the Open Society Foundation, said in the letter, “My hope is that these funds, given in response to an appeal for help from Prime Minister Orban, can provide some relief for the people affected by this tragedy.”

“Hungary must implement preventative measures to ensure this does not happen again,” Soros said.

The grant is part of the Open Society Foundation’s emergency fund, established in 2009 in response to the economic crisis in European countries, including Hungary.

A leak from the Magyar Aluminium ZRt can be seen in this aerial photo, June 2010 (Photo © Interspect courtesy WWF-Hungary)

WWF-Hungary says an aerial photograph taken in June showing a damaged and leaking sludge pond wall indicates that the toxic mud disaster and pollution of rivers could have been avoided.

The photograph was taken by a team from the company Interspect, who taking photographs of sludge pools, open-cast mining, and other potentially dangerous, unhealthy industrial sites.

“This new evidence of the degraded state of the walls and significant leakage more than three months before the incident should be cause for an urgent investigation, not just of this disaster but of the state of Hungary’s other toxic sludge ponds,” said Gabor Figeczky, acting director of WWF-Hungary.

“This points to neglect and a failure of regulation as a prime contributing factor to this disaster,” said Figeczky.

WWF-Hungary urged a fast investigation of remaining waste reservoirs in the area and others around Hungary, along with an urgent aerial mapping of Hungary’s Danube banks.

Hungary requested expert help from the European Union on Thursday. Two days later an official from the EU’s disaster monitoring and information center arrived, and this week a five-member EU team, working with Hungarian authorities, will assess the damage and help mitigate the spill’s impacts.

Kristalina Georgieva, European Commissioner responsible for Crisis Response said, “The quick selection of this team, and the generous offers of member states, clearly shows that European solidarity is working. In their hour of need, we stand shoulder to shoulder with the Hungarian authorities in their efforts to help the victims of this crisis and to reduce the damage to the environment.”

From January 1, 2011, Hungary will for the first time take on the EU presidency. WWF suggests that the sludge disaster could motivate Hungary to use its presidency to push for reducing the risks of large stockpiles of poorly maintained and regulated mining wastes across eastern Europe.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.

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