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Red sludge kills four, injures over 100 in Hungary; state of emergency declared

Red sludge from an alumina plant reservoir rolled through three different Hungarian villages, resulting in multiple casualties. The red sludge is a byproduct of bauxite refining.

By Gergely SzakacsReuters, Krisztina ThanReuters / October 5, 2010

An aerial photo taken Tuesday, Oct. 5, shows the ruptured wall of a red sludge reservoir of the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant in Kolontar, 100 miles southwest of Budapest, Hungary.

Gyoergy Varga/MTI/AP Photo

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Budapest

Hungary declared a state of emergency in three western counties on Tuesday, the day after a torrent of toxic red sludge from an alumina plant reservoir tore through local villages, killing four people and injuring 120.

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The red mud, waste generated during bauxite refining, poured through Kolontar and two other villages on Monday after bursting out of a containment reservoir at the nearby Ajkai Timfoldgyar Zrt plant, owned by MAL Zrt.

On Tuesday the Natural Disaster Unit (NDU) said four more villages were affected and the death toll had risen to four. Six people were known to be missing.

IN PICTURES: Hungary sludge flood

Many others were suffering from burns and eye irritation caused by the lead and other highly corrosive elements. The flood, estimated at about 700,000 cubic meters, threw cars off roads and damaged bridges and homes, forcing the evacuation of about 400 residents.

"We have declared a state of emergency in Veszprem, Gyor-Moson-Sopron and Vas counties," government spokeswoman Anna Nagy told Reuters. "In Veszprem county it's because that is the scene of the disaster and the sludge is headed toward the other two counties."

The National Disaster Unit (NDU) said clean-up crews were pouring plaster into a nearby river to help neutralize the spill and that attempts were being made to prevent the sludge getting into the Danube river, a major European waterway.

MAL Zrt said in a statement on Tuesday there had been no sign of the impending disaster, adding the last examination of the reservoir pond on Monday had shown nothing untoward.

MAL also said the red sludge did not qualify as hazardous waste according to European Union standards and added that 96-98 percent of the sludge had remained in the reservoir.

CAUSTIC EFFECT

The NDU defined the red mud on its website as: "A by-product of alumina production. The thick, highly alkaline substance has a caustic effect on the skin. The sludge contains heavy metals, such as lead, and is slightly radioactive. Inhaling its dust can cause lung cancer."

It recommended people clean off the sludge immediately with lots of water to neutralize the substance. The National Health Authority said, based on sludge samples, there was no acute health risk from radiation.

Overnight, teams dressed in a specialist protective clothing and masks hosed down streets to wash away the red slurry.

"The ceiling is three meters high, and the sludge was two meters 50 high," one local resident told state television. "My child was at home, he managed to make a run for the roof. My father is 85, he tried to make me hold on to the window, but he had to be taken to hospital with severe leg injuries," he added.

The NDU and MAL both denied a report the sludge pond's dam had broken at a second point.

"We have poured multiple tons of plaster into the Marcal River and hope to stem the toxic flow that way. The toxicity of the sludge moderates with every kilometer," NDU spokeswoman Gyorgyi Tottos said.

The Ajka alumina factory was founded in 1943 and is owned by MAL, a company founded in 1995, when the state started the privatization of the aluminum industry.

IN PICTURES: Hungary sludge flood