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Hungary declares emergency as toxic mud kills four

06 października, 2010

Hungary declared a state of emergency after a toxic mud spill swamped seven villages killing four people and injuring 120 in what officials said was the country\'s worst-ever chemical accident.

Eight of the injured were in a serious condition and six people were missing after the walls of a reservoir of residue at an aluminium plant broke on Monday afternoon. Officials feared the death toll could rise.

The sludge left a path of devastation destroying all vegetation other than trees, seeping into houses and leaving residents asking when they could return.

The two-metre (six-and-a-half-foot) tide of mud overturned cars, swept away possessions and has raised fears that pollution leeching from it could reach the Danube River, which courses through Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine before flowing into the Black Sea.

Interior Minister Sandor Pinter insisted there was no threat so far to drinking water in the area but warned against eating home-grown produce from the region for the time being.

"It\'s an ecological catastrophe," said environment state secretary Zoltan Illes, who visited the area Tuesday, describing it as the worst chemical accident in the country.

The toxic sludge swamped seven villages with 1.1 million cubic metres (38.8 million cubic feet) after it spilt from the reservoir in Ajka, western Hungary.

A state of emergency was called in the counties of Veszprem, Gyor-Moson-Sopron and Vas.

Among the dead were two children aged three and one, said Karoly Tily, the mayor of one of the affected villages, Kolontar.

A 35-year-old man was killed when his car was overturned by the flood and an elderly woman died in her home, said disaster relief team chief Gyorgy Bakondi.

The sludge "can cause burns to the skin and blindness if it gets into your eyes," the interior minister told a news conference in Budapest.

Up to 40 square kilometres (15.4 square miles) of land were affected and there were fears that some of the sludge had already found its way into the Marcal river, potentially polluting the connecting Raba and Danube rivers.

The sludge could reach the Danube, Europe\'s second longest river, in four or five days, said the deputy chief of the water management company for western Hungary, Sandor Toth.

"From the point of view of water management, it\'s a catastrophe," Toth said.

The red mud is a toxic residue left over from aluminium production. It is slightly radioactive, highly corrosive and contains toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic and chromium.

Romania\'s environment ministry said it was monitoring water quality round-the-clock and stressed that the level of polluants had not crossed the acceptable limits thus far.

State secretary Illes said there was suspicion that Hungarian Aluminium Production and Trade Company (MAL), which owns the reservoir, had stored more red sludge in the reservoir than was allowed, or that the containers had not been sufficiently fitted.

But MAL insisted it had done nothing wrong.

"According to the daily and annual checks, everything was working fine," said MAL chief Zoltan Bakonyi, saying the company would await the outcome of the official investigation.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban sent his condolences to the victims\' families and promised a thorough investigation to find "who is responsible for this man-made catastrophe".

MAL has suspended all production at the plant, and it will be decided this weekend whether operations can resume, Orban said.

The interior minister said a new protective dam had been built around the broken tank, "so now there is no danger there could be another spill".

Environmental group Greenpeace called for MAL\'s managers to be punished, saying satellite imagery taken a day before the disaster showed "catastrophic cracks in the tank\'s walls."

Conservation group WWF said it was concerned about the long-term environmental impact.