Toxic contamination was such that workers had to wear full chemical hazard gear including breathing apparatus to tackle the thick red mud
by Bill Benfield
Morning Star, October 6, 2010
Emergency workers poured into the Hungarian towns hardest hit by a flood of toxic sludge yesterday in a desperate attempt to clear roads and homes of acres of deep red mud and caustic water.
Hundreds of people were evacuated after the disaster on Monday when a gigantic sludge reservoir burst its banks at an alumina plant in Ajka, 100 miles south-west of Budapest.
A million cubic metres of toxic waste were disgorged on nearby towns, inundating homes, sweeping cars off roads and damaging bridges.
Hungary declared a state of emergency and described the spill as an “ecological disaster” that could threaten the River Danube.
Two women, a young man and a three-year-old child were killed in the disaster and 120 more injured, many with burns. Three people were still reported missing yesterday.
Sappers in nearby Kolontar yesterday began assembling a pontoon bridge across a toxic stream so that residents could briefly return to their homes and rescue belongings.
Emergency workers also rushed to pour 1,000 tons of plaster into the Marcal River in an attempt to bind the sludge and keep it from flowing on to the Danube 45 miles away.
The sludge is a waste product of aluminium production that contains heavy metals and is potentially lethal if ingested.
Toxic contamination was such that workers had to wear full chemical hazard gear including breathing apparatus to tackle the thick red mud, in marked contrast to residents who used snow shovels to clean up and salvage possessions with little more than rubber gloves as protection.
Dozens of villagers were burned when the caustic material seeped through their clothing.
Hungarian environmentalist Gergely Simon said the waste which accumulated in the reservoir for decades had become extremely alkaline and this was what had caused the burns.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the alumina plant and reservoir had been inspected only two weeks earlier and no defects had been found.
But industry representatives could not explain why victims were burned by the material and claimed proper treatment rendered it harmless.
The Hungarian Aluminium Production and Trade Company that owns the Ajkai plant claimed that red sludge was not considered hazardous waste by European Union standards.
The company’s explanation drew an angry response from Interior Minister Sandor Pinter. “They should take a swim in it and then they’ll see,” he said.