8 Oct 2010

Hungary sludge flow ‘almost as big as Gulf oil spill’

The volume of toxic red sludge which is sweeping through southern Hungary is almost as large as the Gulf oil spill, according to officials.

A boy wears a mask next to the Marcal River in Morichida, where a spill has killed fish (Reuters)

The slurry reached the Danube yesterday – sparking fears about damage to one of Europe’s longest rivers.

Greenpeace said this morning that it had seen research results showing the toxic mud was much more dangerous than the authorities are letting on. Zsolt Szegfalvi – the head of Greenpeace Hungary – said the level of arsenic in the sludge was 25 higher than the levels officially allowed in drinking water – while there were also significant amounts of mercury and chrome.

But Hungary’s interior minister said there was no risk of a biological or environmental catastrophe in the Danube – because alkaline levels in the sludge have declined since the spill happened. Sandor Pinter also insisted that drinking water and food safety hadn’t been affected.

The spokesman for Hungary’s disaster agency said he was confident there was no longer a threat to the river’s wildlife. Tibor Dobson said tests showed the pH levels were now down to around 8 – which could be considered normal, adding that it was “absolutely not dangerous for the flora and fauna of the river.”

There have been no more reports of fish dying from contamination in the water.

But experts are still closely monitoring the pollution levels as the spill spreads downstream, towards the Hungarian capital, Budapest. And they are pouring tonnes of clay and acid into streams in a further effort to neutralise the sludge.

State of emergency
A state of emergency was declared in three counties after the torrent of caustic waste from a metals refining plant swept through several villages southwest of the capital on Tuesday.

Seven people have now died, and at least 150 others were injured – many suffering burns or eye problems caused by the corrosive elements in the sludge.

Rescuers are still searching for three people reported missing, while local residents are trying to clear away rubble from the villages which were completely swamped by the flood.

Yesterday Hungary asked for “urgent international assistance” to deal with what the authorities are calling its worst ever ecological diasaster.