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Release of toxic sludge kills 4, Hungary declares emergency

By Stephanie Dearing     Oct 5, 2010 in Environment
Ajka - The Government of Hungary has declared a state of emergency for the affected areas of the country after highly caustic toxic sludge from an alumunim plant escaped from a resevoir when a dam failed, killing four and injuring at least 120 people.
The spill of red watery mud, which happened late on October 4th has now affected six villages that are situated south-west of the national capital, Budapest. The government is extremely concerned the sludge, which has entered one river, will contaminate the greater river system in the country.
The toxic sludge comes from an aluminum plant in Hungary, and is caustic, meaning the sludge burns on contact. Two of the four killed were a one year old and a three year old. Livestock and pets were also killed. It is thought that at least 120 others are suffering from injuries caused by the sludge or the toxic fumes from the sludge. Daily Mail has posted photographs of some of the results of the accident.
It is estimated that as much as 35 million cubic meters of the sludge was released in the accident, although the company that owns the resevoir, MAL Zrt, said most of the sludge still remains in the resevoir.
UKPA reported Tuesday morning that the government has declared a state of emergency for the three counties affected by the spill, with hopes that workers might be able to prevent the sludge from reaching the river system.
The accidental release was so powerful, a railway bridge was damaged, cars were swept up by the mud. The Daily Mail has posted pictures that show the high water mark was at three meters in height, in one of the affected villages.
AFP reported that the government was saying the accident was Hungary's worst ecological incident. A spokesperson for the government told Reuters, "We have declared a state of emergency in Veszprem, Gyor-Moson-Sopron and Vas counties. In Veszprem county, it's because that is the scene of the disaster and the sludge is headed towards the other two counties." The company responsible for the accident is Ajkai Timfoldgyar Zrt plant, owned by MAL Zrt.
MAL Zrt issued a statement expressing succinct regrets and condolences for the accident, but disclaiming any responsibility. The company emphasized "... It is important to know that the red mud waste of the EU standard is not considered hazardous waste (code: -010 309 EWC)."
The management of MAL Zrt also claimed there was nothing it could have done to have prevented the accident, that routine testing of the dam completed on Monday did not show any indication the dam was failing. The company said it will let the public know what it's remediation plans were in a few days time.
All production at the plant has been suspended by the government, according to a Reuters Alert.
While MAL Zrt claims the sludge is not hazardous waste, many of those injured by the sludge are said to be in serious condition. The sludge contains lead and some other heavy metals, and is also slightly radioactive, although officials believe the radioactivity will not pose a health risk.
The key concern now, beyond cleaning up the damaged villages, is to prevent the sludge from contaminating the water system. The sludge has already gotten into the Marcal River, reported CNN, and emergency workers are trying to stop the sludge from reaching the major rivers, the Danube and the Raba.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) believes that it is possible the fish in the Marcal River have already been killed as a result of the accident. The mud, explained the WWF, is highly alkaline, and has to be neutralized with acids. Gabor Figeczky, Deputy CO of WWF-Hungary said “This is an unprecedented incident that effects deeply the ecosystem, wetlands and surface water bodies of the region as well as pointing out the fragility of our drinking water reserves."
It is thought that it would only take five days for the sludge to reach the Danube River. This time of year for Hungary is typically rainy, and the weather forecast for Tuesday predicts more rain.
Reuters reported Hungary's Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, had said the government thought human error might have been behind the accident.
Kansas City has posted more photographs, one of which is an arial photo of the resevoir, showing the dam burst at the corner.
More about Hungary toxic mud, Mud slide, State emergency, Chemical sludge, Ajkai timfoldgyar zrt plant
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