Hungary toxic sludge could cause long-term environmental damage

Clean-up crews are trying to limit damage from 35 million cubic feet of Hungary toxic sludge, which spilled onto a town Monday and killed at least four people.

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    A Hungarian man pushes his bicycle through a street flooded by toxic mud in Devecser, Hungary, Oct. 6.
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Workers with red-stained hands covered this town and others in southwest Hungary on Wednesday, cleaning the toxic sludge that remains from the wave of red mud that poured out of a nearby alumina refinery's reservoir Monday.

The heavy rains, which pushed the dam at one of the Ajkai Aluminia Refinery's 10 containment pools beyond its limits, have subsided. Now, clean-up crews are trying to limit the damage from the 35 million cubic feet of spilled toxic muck, which is the byproduct of the alumina refining process, that has left a thick, rust-red icing for miles around.

Officials worry that the highly caustic spill, which has already been blamed for four deaths and scores of injuries, will contaminate drinking water supplies, rivers, crops, and ecosystems throughout southwest Hungary. Officials are also searching for at least three people who remain missing.

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IN PICTURES: Hungary sludge flood

On Wednesday, Hungary opened a criminal investigation into the cause of the spill and the European Union called for authorities to take every measure to contain the environmental damage.

As the sludge dries, officials say, fine particles that make up the red sludge could become airborne and inhaled. Environmentalists say they hope the disaster will bolster their arguments that storing the sludge, which contains heavy metals, in open reservoirs should be outlawed.

While officials are concentrating on cleaning up the affected towns, there appears to be little attention paid to the acres of spoiled fields.

Hungarians living in the most seriously affected areas have been evacuated, but the authorities allowed them back Wednesday to collect belongings not ruined in the flood.

In a community center in Devecser, officials handed out rubber boots and rations of cheese and bread rolls in plastic bags.

Zita Soha, who is helping distribute clean water and food, says there was no warning before the sludge swept through her town. Their only clue that the refinery's dam had burst was the sound of water. “At 12:30 on Monday, we heard the sound of rushing water,” she says. "What will happen next? We just don't know."

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.

The huge reservoir, which is more than 1,000 feet long and 1,500 feet wide, was no longer leaking Wednesday but a triple-tiered protective wall was being built around its damaged area.

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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