By Elisabeth Rosenthal
New York Times
KOLONTAR, Hungary — Just before he raced for refuge in the attic of his family’s home here on Monday at lunchtime, Krisztian Holczer called his mother at her job at a school near here.
“You won’t believe what is happening,”
Mr. Holczer said he told her.
A wave of caustic red sludge had just poured in over the back fence and was descending rapidly over the backyard, smothering chickens and hares as well as a garden of flowers, peppers, grapes and tomatoes. It rose up until it covered the tiled front porch and leached in through the front door, dyeing the pristine white lace curtains red. Mr. Holczer, 34, escaped with burns on his feet from the dangerous muck.
The origin of the liquid was a nearby sludge reservoir holding the leftovers of the process that converts bauxite to aluminum. For more than 25 years, residents say, a Hungarian manufacturer, MAL Rt., the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company, has stored such waste at several artificial storage ponds in the region. Once a state-owned company, it was privatized in the 1990s like much of Communist-era industry in Eastern Europe.
Just after noon on Monday, a corner of the sludge reservoir broke, sending the goo into the surrounding countryside, turning four prosperous, picturesque villages into red-tinged towns out of science-fiction horror films.
The mud drowned at least four people and sent more than 100 to hospitals with burns, caused by a highly alkaline caustic substance. Sixteen square miles are covered in the muck, hundreds of residents suffered mild burns or lung irritations, and many animals were killed.
Residents here are still waiting for officials to release their analysis of the sludge’s chemical content. A dangerous pollutant at best because of its corrosive nature, red mud from the aluminum production process can contain heavy metals and low-level radioactivity, ingredients that can cause health problems like cancer, and in the long term it can contaminate the environment.
The sludge poured into local streams, which now all appear to be tinted with henna, and is moving downstream at about a mile an hour. It is headed for the Raba River, which empties into the Danube. It has already killed all the river life in the local rivers and streams but now threatens a broad international environmental disaster if high concentrations of the sludge get downstream.
So far the damage is limited to Hungary, which has not asked the European Union for assistance in responding to the catastrophe, but Joe Hennon, the European Commission’s spokesman for environmental issues, said that the organization was concerned about the sludge or its elements moving where it could affect other countries.
“There is potential for widespread environmental damage,”
Mr. Hennon said.
“Right now, they’re trying to contain it, to stop it from reaching the Danube.”
The mud is normally regulated as a pollutant in Europe but can be classified as a hazardous substance if levels of toxic elements are high, he said.
There are more than a dozen sludge storage ponds in this area, which used to be home to a thriving mining industry, for bauxite and coal. Today, the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company is the only one of three aluminum factories still in operation. But sludge ponds from various aging or even shuttered industries dot the landscape in Europe and the United States, often poorly maintained, and posing a threat to health and the environment.
The broken wall of the sludge pond has been repaired, but the cleanup has just started. Police officers, firefighters and soldiers have descended on the towns, evacuating residents. Brigades of government workers and residents, wearing thick boots and surgical masks, are shoveling the red muck into trucks and hosing down homes and roads.
Hungary’s top investigative agency is looking into the spill. A case has been opened to consider possible criminal negligence, although it was not clear whether the investigation was aimed at the company or individual employees.
Jozsef Deak, a company engineer, said that
“the company is not shying away from responsibility.”
Heavy rains may have raised the sludge level, although company officials say it was within permitted limits before this week’s spill.
The sludge reservoirs that dot the area are often poorly maintained, said Gabor Figeczky, acting C.E.O. of WWF-Hungary, a conservation group. The sludge reservoirs, in theory, have a sealed base and are supposed to be closed once they are full, but some, like the one that broke this week, are large, and filling them can take decades.
In the meantime, they are subject to regular inspections. The European Commission said that it had been told that the company had received its most recent permit in 2006 and that it had no recorded history of violations or accidents. The sludge ponds in the region were scheduled to be inspected again this month, WWF-Hungary said.
“There used to be three of these aluminum factories, and all were on flood plains, and two were next to the Danube,”
said Csaba Vaszko, project officer for WWF-Hungary, who said that in some ways sludge ponds of closed factories were more worrisome than those of operating companies.
“These old factories were supposed to maintain the sludge ponds and keep them safe,” Mr. Vaszko said,
“but it is a huge problem in Eastern Europe because these companies didn’t set aside enough money for that.”
Because this is the first large-scale accident involving aluminum sludge, experts are feeling their way in the cleanup. In the long term, the region’s topsoil will have to be totally replaced, because it is irretrievably alkaline and possibly contaminated with heavy metals, environmental groups say.
Residents have been promised that their homes will be decontaminated, although it is not yet clear who is responsible for the decontamination and who will pay for the cleanup. And many residents say that is not satisfactory.
Nikolett Fekete said she was mowing her lawn when the dog began to
“bark like mad”
and she heard a
“strange moving sound like horses running in a field,”
announcing the red mud’s arrival. At the height of the spill, there was more than a meter of muck in her house, she recalled, displaying the burns on her hands.
“No, no, no, I don’t want to come back,” she said.
“Who would want to stay here after something like this?”
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