ENVIRONMENT -- October 6, 2010 at 5:15 PM EDT
Toxic Sludge From Hungary Spill Coats Villages, Threatens Danube
A red-tinged toxic sludge has been winding its way though villages in Hungary this week - the result of a metal plant reservoir that burst its banks in Ajka. The images have been both striking and shocking and local residents are growing more vocal in their distress over the disaster.
Rescue workers continued clean-up efforts in villages already coated in the waste and the European Union called for action to prevent the flow from reaching the Danube River.
"This is a serious environmental problem," EU spokesman Joe Hennon told reporters. "We are concerned, not just for the environment in Hungary, but this could potentially cross borders."
At least four people have died and 120 were injured when the reservoir of an alumina plant about 100 miles from Budapest broke Monday, sending a wave of hazardous liquid into nearby villages. Injuries included chemical burns from contact with the waste. Hundreds of people have evacuated the area.
Hungary has declared a state of emergency in three counties and said the clean up could cost tens of millions of dollars and will take at least a year.
A Hungarian soldier wearing a chemical protection suit cleans a street of Devecser, one of the flooded villages.
At a heated town hall meeting Wednesday in Kolontar, one of the villages hit hardest by the spill, angry residents complained they weren't told the substance was toxic until many people were already burned from contact with it, said Veronika Gulyas, a reporter for Dow Jones Newswires, who is covering the story for the Wall Street Journal.
"There was shouting in the meeting, they invited the [plant] director to walk barefoot with them through the village. They said the houses were not livable," Gulyas said.
Kolontar was hit with a "tsunami of the red substance" Monday, she said, but is now coated in a layer of the sludge about three to seven inches thick. Clean-up crews with shovels and heavy equipment are digging up the top 10 inches of contaminated soil and power washing the walls of homes.
Residents at the meeting, however, were more concerned about compensation for their homes than the clean-up efforts.
"People said they wouldn't come back here so basically they don't care how much time this would take, they want to move away from this village," Gulyas said. "Now they know the soil is contaminated, they say they won't eat what is grown here."
A dog covered in sludge in Kolontar
While the spill itself has now been contained at the plant, she said, authorities are trying desperately to keep the waste from reaching the Danube. Workers are pouring plaster into the Marcal river, which feeds into the Danube, to try to bind the sludge, reported the Guardian, and have used other chemicals to try to neutralize its extremely alkaline ph.
Hungary has also opened a criminal probe into the cause of the spill.