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Fresh toxic spill threatens Hungary
Prime minister admits "human error" behind sludge spill as village of Kolontar is evacuated over fears of new leak.
Last Modified: 09 Oct 2010 21:18 GMT
Hungarian authorities have evacuated the village of Kolontar amid fears of a second wave of red toxic sludge [AFP]

The Hungarian prime minister has said the weakened northern wall of an aluminium sludge reservoir which caused a devastating toxic spill, is likely to collapse within hours, threatening a second spill of the dangerous heavy metal waste.

Viktor Orban's comments on Saturday came as the village of Kolontar, which lies close to the deadly sludge spill in the country's west, was evacuated as a precaution.

About one million cubic metres of the waste material leaked out of the alumina plant reservoir into several villages and waterways earlier this week, killing seven people, injuring 150 and fouling some rivers including a local branch of the Danube.

In Depth

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Orban said there was now a high risk of another up to 500,000 cubic metres of even thicker sludge escaping the reservoir due to a deterioration of a wall in the stricken part of the reservoir.

"Last night the interior minister informed us that cracks have appeared in the northern wall of the reservoir, whose corner collapsed, which make it likely that the entire wall will collapse," Orban said in remarks carried by private broadcaster HirTV from the western town of Ajka near the disaster zone.

"The detached parts of the dam are growing apart, the distance between them widened by seven centimetres from late last night until this morning ... so it is very likely that we have to reckon on this wall collapsing."

Orban said that officials have amassed protective and neutralising material needed to stop any new contamination from reaching the Danube via the rivers. 

During his visit to the affected area, he also acknowledged that "human error" had caused the spill.

Authorities evacuated 800 people from the village of Kolontar, hard-hit by Monday's spill, to Ajka as a precaution, according to the national news agency, MTI.

Al Jazeera’s Anita McNaught, reporting from Ajka on Saturday, said that the gap that the prime minister was warning about has been joined by a second imminent break along the northern wall of the dam.

"No one quite knows where it is going to go, but it is clear that the wall is unstable and that it is in some sense giving way. People here are holding their breath," she said.

Fears of new leak

MTI said crews were building a new five-metre-high dam in Kolontar to ward off any fresh sludge inundation.

Kolontar and Devecser were the towns hardest hit when up to 700,000 cubic metres of red sludge poured out of the reservoir at the alumina plant in Ajka.

"My point is that behind this tragedy, there must have been some human errors and mistakes"

Viktor Orban,
Hungarian prime minister

Al Jazeera's Tania Page, reporting from Ajke, said "authorities are measuring the density of the sludge, by dropping steel rods into the reservoir, in the hopes that it will give the disaster unit an idea of how much of this material is going to come pouring out".

On Saturday "all the residents of Kolontar were taken to a sports hall and two schools in Ajka, eight kilometres away, over fears of new leaks," she said.

"Officials insist that the decision was taken as a precautionary measure."

MAL Zrt, the company that owns the metals plant, said the waste was not considered hazardous under EU standards and recommended people clean off the sludge with water.

However, many people suffered from burns and eye irritations caused by corrosive elements in the mud.

Experts have been pouring large quantities of clay and acid into affected waterways in an effort to neutralise the alkaline pollutants.

Crisis

Hungary declared a state of emergency in three counties on Tuesday after sludge from the bauxite-refining plant flooded areas 160km west of Budapest.

MTI said disaster crews were also poised to evacuate Devecser, with 5,400 people, if necessary.

Orban said the military had deployed 319 soldiers and 127 transport vehicles into the town and there were also five trains at the ready should an evacuation become necessary.

Disaster crews are reportedly poised to evacuate the town of Devecser if necessary [AFP]

"There is certainly sadness and unease [in Devecser] but there are no signs at all of panic," Orban said.

Orban said he would inform parliament about the findings of an investigation on Monday and reiterated his view that the disaster was likely the result of human error.

"We all are astonished because we are not aware of any information that could reduce [the likelihood of] human responsibility. My point is that behind this tragedy, there must have been some human errors and mistakes."

There will be "the toughest possible consequences" to ensure such a disaster does not recur, Orban said.

He added that a decision on whether to allow the plant to resume bauxite refining would not be made before Monday.

There were still no estimates of the financial damage caused by the sludge and the cause of the accident remains unknown.

All life died in the Marcal River, the first to be struck by the sludge. There was sporadic fish death in other rivers. There were no reports of serious damage to the main branch of the Danube, which passes through many European countries.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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