Hungary rushes to build dam in case of new toxic flood
Kolontar, Hungary (AFP) Oct 10, 2010
Hungary raced against time Sunday to erect a dam around a ruptured reservoir and divert a new wave of toxic sludge that threatens to overwhelm already devastated villages.
As hundreds of volunteers joined engineers rushing to erect the 600-metre dam, a top official said it was only a matter of days before the reservoir housing a chemical residue would begin to crumble.
"In two or three days there is going to be rain and we are trying to speed things up so that we can finish off the dam before the rain comes," Zoltan Illes, the state secretary for environmental protection, told reporters at the dam construction site.
"Once the rain is here, the remaining sludge will be washed out and the dam's northern section is going to break away. This is imminent. Once the wall breaks down, the sludge will start flowing again."
Repair work also continued on the reservoir itself where cracks have been detected, raising fears that what is already Hungary's worst environmental disaster could soon get even worse.
At least seven people were killed when the red-coloured sludge first began seeping from the reservoir next to an alumina plant before then cascading into nearby villages and tributaries of the Danube.
Kolontar was the village worst hit by the disaster and its entire population of nearly 1,000 people have been forced to evacuate while the threat of a new spill remains.
Many have been put up in a sports centre in the nearby town of Ajka although others have moved in with relatives.
Tibor Dobson, the official in charge of the disaster relief effort, said around 800 volunteers were helping 900 police, disaster relief workers and firefighters Sunday.
The country's public health service said all relief workers must wear breathing masks and protective glasses, as drying sludge was starting to produce dust.
"The red sludge, if it drys, can be inhaled and could irritate the mucous membrane, and irritant effects may damage the skin and eyes," the service said in a statement.
A team of five experts from the European Union's civil protection unit are heading to Hungary to assess the environmental impact and issue advice on decontamination.
Half a dozen cranes and a similar number of bulldozers were at the site of the dam on Sunday, as part of the effort to build a dam which will eventually be up to five metres in height and six metres in width once completed.
"I am not a disaster tourist," said local man Gyorgy Racz, who had come to inspect the damage. "I'm doing the community a favour by seeing everything with my own eyes."
Illes said that around 2.5 million tonnes of sludge still remain inside the reservoir after around 800,000 tonnes spilled out.
But he said that the remaining sludge should be easier to deal with if it does spill out.
"This is a different texture now, more like clay and not going to flow as far," he told reporters.
More than 40 people who suffered injuries from the spill were still in hospital Sunday, most treated for burns from the chemicals which also killed livestock and fish.
"They don't have life-threatening injuries, but some will need plastic surgery," said Jeno Racz, director of the Veszprem county hospital.
A three-year-old boy was also transferred to a Budapest hospital because some of the sludge had entered his eyes, causing serious damage, Racz said.
Villagers evacuated to Ajka, 160 kilometres (100 miles) from the capital Budapest, were worried about their homes.
"Unfortunately we will have to stay here for a couple of nights until they build that dam. After that we can hopefully return," said Peter, who like all of those who spent the night at the shelter would only give his first name.
The sludge from the MAL Hungarian Aluminium Production and Trade Company plant is a residue from aluminium production that contains toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic and chromium.
earlier related report
They were evacuated at dawn from Kolontar, a village close to the reservoir that burst in western Hungary Monday, killing seven people, injuring scores more and poisoning rivers in the country's worst ecological disaster.
The despairing and angry villagers were taken by bus to Ajka, the nearest major town which is 160 kilometres (100 miles) from the capital Budapest. Many placed the blame on MAL Hungarian Aluminium Production and Trade Company, which runs the plant whose sludge had swept through their homes.
"I feel really angry at the company because I feel they're responsible." said Jozsef Lengyel, who was just released from hospital on Thursday after being treated for burns on his lower body.
"I feel they think I'm stupid when they say this sludge isn't dangerous, because I've been burned up to my waist," the evacuated villager told AFP.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrived in Ajka and admitted that another flood of toxic sludge seemed inevitable.
"The reservoir is so damaged that it is likely that it will give way for a second time," Orban said.
"If the dyke of the reservoir gives way, about 500,000 cubic metres will be released. Several cracks are visible from the north side of the reservoir," he said.
The first flood on October 4 released 1.1 million cubic metres (38.8 million cubic feet) of foul-smelling, blood-red toxic sludge into villages and rivers.
Security forces also warned thousands of villagers in nearby Devecser to be ready to move if necessary, officials said.
"The evacuation of Kolontar began at six in the morning (0400 GMT) after we noticed that the dam started weakening at tank number 10," Disaster Relief Team chief Tibor Dobson told AFP.
One of the new cracks was seven centimetres (three inches) wide, officials said.
The entire area was under surveillance, with helicopters with heat-detecting cameras in the air and 650 policemen on the ground co-ordinating rescue operations, the national police's website said.
Some of the evacuees were to stay with friends and relatives and those with nowhere else to go would be put up in the town's sports complex, officials said.
"There is despair and sadness, but no panic," said Orban of the mood among evacuees in Ajka.
Work was under way to build a new dam in Kolontar, in case of a new flood, to save those houses that were undamaged in the previous disaster, the Hungarian News Agency MTI reported.
The dam would be four to five metres (around 13 to 16 feet) high and made of earth and rocks, and would be ready in 48 hours.
The death toll from Monday's inundation of toxic sludge rose to seven on Friday, with one person still missing. The dead included a 14-month-old girl.
Around 150 people have been injured, many suffering deep burns, and include some of the first firefighters on the scene after the flood.
The prime minister meanwhile said there would be "consequences" after the unprecedented disaster, raising the possibility of action against the company running the plant. He also indicated that the Kolontar villagers would be provided for.
"Our house was the second next to the river, and everything has been destroyed in it. We've been told we can have a new house, either in Kolontar or elsewhere," Lengyel's daughter, Noemi, who was with the rest of her evacuated family in the Ajka sports centre, told AFP.
Nature protection organisation WWF meanwhile said Saturday that the reservoir had been leaking for months, publishing photographs on its website dating back to June.
"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," Gebor Figeczky, the acting head of WWF's Hungarian branch, was quoted as saying.
"This points to neglect and a failure of regulation as a prime contributing factor to this disaster," added Figeczky.
The pollution already wiped out all life in the smaller Marcal tributary and experts say it will take up to five years for that river to recover.
Officials have insisted there was little risk for the Danube, Europe's second-longest river after the Volga.
Water samples taken Friday in the Danube above Budapest revealed a marked decrease in pollution levels with near-normal alkali, but the ecosystem of the Danube is still threatened.
The countries bordering the Danube, including Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia and Romania, have started regular checks of the river's water quality.
The Hungarian government has set up a website to deliver information about the disaster at www.redsludge.bm.hu.
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Budapest (AFP) Oct 7, 2010
The entire ecosystem of a small river in Hungary which is situated in the area affected by a deadly toxic mud spill, has been destroyed, a disaster relief chief said Thursday. "The entire ecosystem of the Marcal river has been destroyed, because the very high alkaline levels have killed everything," Tibor Dobson, head of the regional disaster relief services, told the Hungarian news agency M ... read more
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