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Oct 6, 2010 9:45 PM by Alison Haynes

Sludge-hit Hungarian villagers demand compensation

KOLONTAR, Hungary (AP) - There was no stopping the avalanche of
toxic red sludge: It smashed through the door of Kati Holczer's
house, trapping the mother and her toddler in a sea of caustic
waste.
She saved her 3-year-old son, Bence, by placing him on a sofa
that was floating in the muck. Then she called her husband Balazs,
who was working in Austria, to say goodbye.
"We're going to die," she told him, chest-deep in the acrid
mud.
After the terror came the pain: Holczer and her two rescuers
were among dozens of villagers suffering from deep chemical burns
following Monday's spill.
Their fox terrier Mazli - his name means "Luck" in Hungarian -
lay dead in the yard Wednesday, still chained to a stake. Luca,
their Labrador, was swept away by the 9-foot-high wave of toxic
waste that poured from a breached reservoir at a nearby alumina
factory.
The ecological catastrophe that is threatening the Danube River
- one of Europe's main waterways - has left a trail of shattered
lives.
On Wednesday, furious villagers, their shoes splattered with the
caustic red mud, crowded around an official of the company blamed
for the disaster and demanded compensation for destroyed homes,
fields and livelihoods. Authorities have ordered a criminal inquiry
into the accident, which killed at least four people, injured 120
and left three people missing.
After bursting from the reservoir and flooding three villages
Monday, the sludge - a waste product of aluminum production that
can contain heavy metals - ended up in the Marcal River, part of
the tributary system feeding the Danube, some 45 miles to the
north. Hundreds of people were evacuated.
Local streams were swollen Wednesday and tinted ochre by the
sludge, and residents said they were empty of fish.
Imre Szakacs, head of the county crisis management committee,
told the state-run MTI news agency the lye-like slurry was expected
to reach the Danube by the weekend or early next week. Chemical
analyses of the sludge were ongoing Wednesday.
However, Kolontar Mayor Karoly Tili told The Associated Press
the material was not radioactive as feared. "We can say for sure
that according to the measurements there is no radioactivity," he
said.
Still, concerns grew about damage to marine life in the region
and beyond. South of Hungary, the 1,775-mile Danube flows through
Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Moldova before
emptying into the Black Sea.
Hungary's National Rescue Service said engineers considered
diverting the Marcal River into nearby fields but decided not to,
fearing the damage would be too great.
Workers were extracting sludge from the river and using plaster
and acid to try to neutralize it. Initial measurements showed the
sludge was extremely alkaline, with a pH value of 13, the agency
said.
The European Union said it feared the toxic flood could turn
into an ecological disaster and urged Hungarian authorities to
focus on keeping the sludge from reaching the Danube.
"It is important that we do .... everything possible that it
would not endanger the Danube," EU Environment Commissioner Janez
Potocnik told the AP in Brussels. "We have to do this very moment
everything possible ... (to) limit the extent of the damage."
"This is a serious environmental problem," EU spokesman Joe
Hennon said. "We are concerned, not just for the environment in
Hungary, but this could potentially cross borders."
Greenpeace was more even emphatic.
The sludge spill is "one of the top three environmental
disasters in Europe in the last 20 or 30 years," said Herwit
Schuster, a spokesman for Greenpeace International.
Angry villagers gathered outside the mayor's office in Kolontar
late Wednesday had more immediate concerns, as they berated a
senior official of MAL Rt., the Hungarian Aluminum Production and
Trade Company that owns the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant, demanding
compensation.
Local officials said 34 homes in the village were unlivable.
However, furious residents said the disaster had destroyed the
whole community by making their real estate valueless.
"The whole settlement should be bulldozed into the ground,"
bellowed Janos Potza, straining to be heard above his neighbors.
"There's no point for anyone to go back home."
"Those who can, will move out of Kolontar. From now on, this is
a dead town," fumed Beata Gasko Monek.
Visibly shaken, Jozsef Deak, the company's operations manager,
said it would not shy away from taking responsibility if found
guilty. He spoke from the passenger seat of a police cruiser, using
its speaker system as villagers crowded around.
Two days after the red torrent disgorged an estimated 35 million
cubic feet (1 million cubic meters) of toxic waste, it was not
known why part of the reservoir collapsed.
National Police Chief Jozsef Hatala was heading the
investigation into the spill because of its importance and
complexity, police spokeswoman Monika Benyi said. Investigators
would look into whether on-the-job carelessness was a factor, she
said.
The huge reservoir, more than 1,000 feet (300 meters) long and
1,500 feet (450 meters) wide, was no longer leaking Wednesday and a
triple-tiered protective wall was being built around its damaged
section. Interior Minister Sandor Pinter said guards have been
posted at the site to give an early warning in case of any new
emergency.
Greenpeace workers took sludge samples on Tuesday and were
having them tested to determine whether they contain heavy metals.
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.
Hungarian company officials have insisted the sludge is not
considered hazardous waste according to EU standards. The company
has also rejected criticism that it should have taken more
precautions at the reservoir.
In Hungary's hardest-hit towns, emergency workers and
construction crews in respirators and other hazmat gear worked
Wednesday to clear roads and homes coated by thick red sludge and
caustic muddy water.
In Kolontar, a military construction crew assembled a pontoon
bridge across a toxic stream so residents could briefly return to
their homes and retrieve some belongings.
In sharp contrast to the emergency workers, villagers salvaged
possessions with little more than rubber gloves for protection.
Women with pants coated in red mud cleared the muck away from their
homes with snow shovels.
The International Commission for the Protection of the Danube,
which manages the river and its tributaries, said that sludge spill
could trigger long-term damaging effects for both wildlife and
humans.
"It is a very serious accident and has potential implications
for other countries," Philip Weller, the group's executive
secretary, said from Brussels.
Weller said the commission's early warning alarm system was
triggered by the spill, which means factories and towns along the
Danube may have to shut down their water intake systems.
He said large fish in the Danube could ingest any heavy metals
carried downstream, potentially endangering people who eat them.
Alumina plants are scattered around the world, with the 12
largest concentrated in Australia, Brazil and China. The plant in
Hungary ranks 53rd in the world in production, according to
industry statistics.
The United States has three facilities similar to the one in
Hungary. However, regulation and waste storage practices make it
unlikely that a similar spill could occur, industry officials and
regulators said.
The three U.S. facilities are in Texas and Louisiana, along the
Gulf Coast, allowing the plants to take advantage of the hot
weather in treating the waste, said Charles Johnson, of the
Aluminum Association, a Washington-based lobbying group.

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