Toxic leak in the Central European country threatens to reach a major international waterway.
Hungary declared a state of emergency in three western counties on Tuesday, a day after a containment reservoir at an alumina plant ruptured and released toxic red sludge in nearby villages, killing four people, injuring 120, Reuters reports.
Six more people are missing in what officials described as an ecological catastrophe, according to the Associated Press.
The spill at the Ajkai Timfoldgyar Zrt plant, estimated at more than 24 million cubic feet, has spread more than 40 square kilometers, damaging infrastructure, killing livestock, flooding farmland and forcing the evacuation of about 400 residents.
The waste, a bi-product of alumina production, contains heavy metals, has a caustic effect on the skin and can be toxic if digested, according to Hungary’s National Disaster Unit (NDU). Initial tests show that there is no threat of radiation in the affected areas.
MAL Zrt, the company owning the facility, said in a statement that there had been no sign of the impending disaster. Meanwhile, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Tuesday that the spill may have been caused by human error.
“We do not know of any sign which indicates that this disaster would have natural causes,” Orban told Reuters. “And if a disaster has no natural causes, then it can be considered a disaster caused by people. We suspect that this may be the case.”
According to the NDU, clean-up crews have poured several hundred tons of plaster into the nearby Marcal River to neutralize the toxic sludge and prevent it from getting into the Danube, a major waterway that flows through 10 European countries.
A Greenpeace toxics expert told Reuters that the disaster might have a much bigger negative impact than the cyanide spill at Baia Mare in Romania in 2000, when cyanide-tainted water leaked from a gold mine reservoir, polluting the Tisza and Danube rivers.
According to the local Clear Air Action Group, red sludge is, by volume, “the largest amount of toxic waste in Hungary.” Every ton of alumina produced in the country results in two tons of toxic waste.
, a Bulgaria native, is a Chicago-based reporter for Circle of Blue. She co-writes The Stream, a daily digest of international water news trends.
Interests: Europe, China, Environmental Policy, International Security.