Criminal investigation into toxic sludge leak


HUNGARY HAS opened a criminal investigation into a deadly escape of toxic sludge from an industrial plant, amid fears that it could grow into a regional environmental disaster.

Four people were killed, about 120 were injured and three are still missing after a dam holding waste slurry collapsed at an alumina works in southwest Hungary, sending a wave of poisonous red mud racing through nearby villages and into a tributary of the river Danube.

Rescue teams are searching for the missing locals, cleaning up, and pouring tonnes of gypsum into the Marcal river to try and prevent contamination of the Danube, Europe’s second-longest river, which flows from Hungary through Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Moldova on its way to the Black Sea.

“Our hope is that we’ll be able to contain this and it won’t get to the Danube,” interior minister Sandor Pinter said yesterday, as the European Union and environmental groups assessed the potential wider impact of Hungary’s worst chemical spill.

“This is a serious environmental problem,” said EU spokesman Joe Hennon. “We are concerned, not just for the environment in Hungary, but this could potentially cross borders.”

Philip Weller, executive secretary of the International Commission for Protection of the Danube, said the spill had triggered his organisation’s warning system, which meant that factories and towns along the Danube may have to stop using water from the river.

“This is what you call a significant event,” Mr Weller said. “It’s a potential threat to neighbouring countries.” Herwit Schuster, a spokesman for Greenpeace, called the mud spill “one of the top three environmental disasters in Europe in the last 20 or 30 years”.

“It is clear that 40sq m (15.5 square miles) of mostly agricultural land is polluted and destroyed for a long time. If there are substances like arsenic and mercury, that would affect river systems and groundwater on long-term basis,” he added.

Another major fear is that fish will ingest the heavy metals, so endangering anyone who eats them. The Hungarian firm that runs the alumina plant insists that safety tests gave no indication of the impending disaster.

Hungary’s police chief, Jozsef Hatala, will lead an investigation into the incident. “If there was no natural disaster, then we have to look for human responsibility,” said Mr Pinter.

The disaster presents Mr Orban’s centre-right government with its first major challenge since taking office in April, and one volunteer worker complained yesterday that the clean-up operation was “chaos”. “I think it’s a disgrace,” he said, while asking not to be named. “The flood was on Monday and now on Wednesday we’re still waiting for orders.”