By The Associated Press
KOLONTAR, Hungary – The toxic red sludge that burst out of a Hungarian factory’s reservoir reached the mighty Danube on Thursday after wreaking havoc on smaller rivers and creeks, and downstream nations rushed to test their waters.
The European Union and environmental officials fear an environmental catastrophe affecting half a dozen nations if the red sludge, a waste product of making aluminum, contaminates the Danube, Europe’s second-longest river.
Officials from Croatia, Serbia and Romania were taking river samples every few hours Thursday but hoping that the Danube’s huge water volume would blunt the impact of the spill.
The Hungarian reservoir break on Monday disgorged a toxic torrent through three villages and creeks that flow into waterways connected to the Danube. Creeks in Kolontar, the western village closest to the spill site, were still swollen and ochre red days later and villagers said they were devoid of fish.
The red sludge reached the western branch of the Danube early Thursday and its broad, main stretch by noon, Hungarian rescue agency spokesman Tibor Dobson told the state MTI news agency.
Dobson said the pH content of the red sludge entering the Danube had dropped and was unlikely to cause further environmental damage. It had been tested earlier at a pH level of 13 and now was down under 10, and no dead fish had been spotted in the Danube, he said.
A neutral pH level for water is 7, with normal readings ranging from 6.5 to 8.5. Each pH number is 10 times the previous level, so a pH of 13 is 1,000 times more alkaline than a pH of 10.
The Hungarian Academy of Science said sludge samples taken two days ago showed that the muck’s heavy metal concentrations do “not come close” to levels considered dangerous to the environment. But the academy said Thursday it still considered the sludge dangerous — apparently due to its caustic characteristics.
The sludge has devastated local waterways.
“Life in the Marcal River has been extinguished,” Dobson told The Associated Press, referring to the river’s 25-mile (40-kilometer) stretch that carried the red waste from Kolontar into the Raba River and onto the Danube.
He said emergency crews were pouring plaster and acetic acid — vinegar — into the Raba-Danube meeting point to lower the slurry’s pH value.
“The main effort is now being concentrated on the Raba and the Danube,” he said.
South of Hungary, the 1,775-mile (2,850-kilometer) long Danube flows through Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Moldova before emptying into the Black Sea.
At the Croatian village of Batina, the first site after the Danube leaves Hungary, experts were taking water samples daily for the next week. In Romania, water levels were reported safe Thursday, with testing being carried out every three hours.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, stopping at dawn in Kolontar, described the reservoir break as an unprecedented disaster in Hungary.
“If this had happened at night then everyone here would have died,” he was quoted by MTI as telling villagers. “This is so irresponsible that it is impossible to find words!”
Local officials said 34 homes in Kolontar were unlivable but furious residents said the disaster had destroyed the whole village of 800 by making their land worthless. The prime minister called the worst-hit area a total write-off, saying he saw “no sense” in rebuilding in the same location.
“The whole settlement should be bulldozed into the ground,” bellowed resident Janos Potza. “There’s no point for anyone to go back home.”
Soldiers, emergency workers and volunteers dressed in a range of mud-splattered protective gear kept shoveling out the muck Thursday, a process that one official said could take months.
It is still not known why part of the reservoir collapsed and allowed an estimated 35 million cubic feet (1 million cubic meters) of waste to sweep through the villages, killing at least four people and leaving three missing. Disaster officials said over 150 people had been treated at hospitals and 11 were still in serious condition Thursday.
Hungary’s top investigative agency, the National Investigation Office, took over the probe into the spill and planned to look into whether on-the-job carelessness was a factor.
MAL Rt., the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company, which owns the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant where the spill occurred, insists the sludge is not considered hazardous waste according to EU standards.
The huge reservoir, more than 1,000 feet (300 meters) long and 1,500 feet (450 meters) wide, was no longer leaking and a triple-tiered protective wall was being built around its damaged section. Guards have been posted to give an early warning in case of any new emergency.
Still, Kolontar Mayor Karoly Tili noted that the disaster occurred only a week after Hungarian environmental authorities had declared the reservoir safe.
“People are scared,” he told the AP. “People no longer trust or believe what is said about the reservoir.”
Etel Stampf, 76, was in her backyard in Kolontar when the first waves of the flood hit. She climbed on the roof of her pigsty to survive, but the flooding was so high that one of her legs dangled in the cold red water for an hour and was left badly burned.
“If I don’t die now, I never will,” Stampf said she thought while clinging to the pigsty’s main beam.
“We worked so hard for years to have something for ourselves and now it’s all gone,” Stampf said. “I don’t want to stay here. Ten years from now there will be nothing left of this town.”
Environmental groups were holding a candle-lit vigil outside the Hungarian Embassy in Bucharest on Thursday night to express solidarity with the victims. The disaster evoked memories of a spill at a gold plant in northwestern Romania in 2000 that sent cyanide shooting into the Tisza River, killing tons of fish in Hungary.
Red sludge is a byproduct of the refining of bauxite into alumina, the basic material for manufacturing aluminum. Treated sludge is often stored in ponds where the water eventually evaporates, leaving behind a dried red clay-like soil.
Alumina plants are scattered around the world, with the 12 largest concentrated in Australia, Brazil and China.
Associated Press writers George Jahn, Greg Katz in London, Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston contributed to this report.