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In Hungary, Toxic Red Sludge Reaches Danube River

October 7, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: And to another environmental disaster, this one in Hungary. Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: Toxic red sludge from an aluminum plant in Hungary reached the Danube River today, widening the potential environmental fallout.

Upstream, emergency crews continued pouring plaster and acetic acid, or vinegar, into the Danube’s tributaries, trying to neutralize the high alkaline levels in the water. The spill began Monday when the wall of a factory’ containment reservoir in the village of Kolontar collapsed. Three villages were inundated in caustic sludge dyed a deep red by the heavy metals it contained.

Villagers said all the fish in local creeks had died. Hungarian chemical experts were busy testing the waters today.

ZOLTAN NEMETH, chemical analyst (through translator): The toxicity didn’t reach the delta. We spoke to other colleagues who measured on the Danube, and have set up other checkpoints.

MARGARET WARNER: But there were conflicting assessments of how toxic the sludge was as it moved downstream toward the Danube.

Hungary’s emergency agency said the pH level measuring alkaline vs. acid had dropped from 13 to 10. That’s still above the normal range of six to eight. The state water authority gave another figure. And the Hungarian Academy of Sciences said the heavy metal concentrations were not close to dangerous levels.

But an official of the world wildlife fund in Budapest said the sludge’s toxicity or ultimate effect was unknowable at this point. “Currently, it is impossible to do any sort of estimate of the magnitude of the damage done to nature,” he said. “Yesterday, I didn’t think, today, it would reach the Danube or be so alkaline.”

And, in Brussels, the European Commission warned there remained potential for widespread damage on the continent. At nearly 1,800 miles long, the Danube is Europe’s second longest river. So far, the sludge has traveled along the Marcal River to the Raba and Mosoni rivers, reaching the main Danube today.

From there, the Danube flows west to Budapest, then turns south again to and through Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Moldova to the Black Sea. Officials in those countries, including this village in Croatia, were testing the water every few hours today.

GORDANA MISLOSEVIC, Croatian Waters (through translator): You cannot notice anything with the naked eye, and we do not expect anything much to be visible with the naked eye, even if the sludge reaches here.

ZORAN DJUROKOVIC, director, Croatian Waters (through translator): Possible contamination is expected in the next two to three days. Around Sunday, we could see the peak of the contamination.

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, back in the heavily contaminated Hungarian villages, residents, soldiers, and firemen worked around the clock to hose and shovel the sludge away from homes.

ILONA GEIGER, resident, Devecser, Hungary (through translator): We have lost everything. My mother, unfortunately, had no insurance. Our whole life, the house, the furniture, the groceries, the dog, cat, hen, everything is ruined.

MARGARET WARNER: Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, visited Kolontar today. He said the worst-hit sections were so toxic, there was no sense in removing the debris.

VIKTOR ORBAN, Hungarian prime minister: What I have seen is terrible, simply terrible. This is the first and probably the most ever happened, that kind of geological tragedy here in Hungary. So, the people are desperate. There is no trust at all.

MARGARET WARNER: The spill is blamed for four deaths and 150 hospitalizations. Search crews in chemical suits continued to look today for several people still listed as missing.