Dam holding toxic sludge 'close to collapse'
Published 10/10/2010 | 05:00
Hundreds of people were evacuated from a village in Hungary yesterday because of the threat of a new flood of toxic red sludge.
Experts feared another 100 million gallons of the mud were about to escape a reservoir where it was stored, after fresh cracks appeared in the dam holding it.
Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, arrived in the village of Kolontar before dawn to supervise the evacuation of families who thought they had escaped the worst of the disaster.
Spills since last Monday have already killed seven people and left 150 suffering chemical burns. A vast area of farmland about 100 miles east of the capital, Budapest, has been polluted, as has the Danube. "We have to prepare for the worst-case scenario," Mr Orban said.
The collapse of the northern wall of the reservoir was "very likely", he added. Hungary has declared a state of emergency in three counties.
Emergency teams including hundreds of soldiers have worked around the clock to construct earth walls to slow down any further release.
Residents living in the village will be given the choice of having their homes rebuilt or be rehoused elsewhere, Mr Orban said. Emergency plans were also drawn up to evacuate the village of Devecser, further down the valley, which has 5,300 inhabitants.
As evacuation plans were put into effect, the scene below the reservoir was one of desolation. Houses, fields, cars, and streets were painted red by the toxic mud.
The original spill, which began at lunchtime last Monday, sent 184 million gallons of red sludge gushing into the valley through a fissure 40 metres wide.
The pollution reached the Danube last Thursday, but its effect was reduced by neutralising agents poured into the tributaries, and by the sheer volume of water in Europe's second longest river. Most of those affected were farmers.
Millions of gallons of the pollutant, coloured red by iron oxide, were stored in a series of reservoirs. It was the residue of 50 years of Soviet-era industrial production.
The sludge, which has a high heavy-metal content, is slightly radioactive. In the past few days it has dried out, and now red toxic dust is filling the air around the disaster area.