Hungary on Wednesday opened a criminal investigation into this week's toxic sludge flood and the European Union (EU) urged emergency authorities to do everything they can to keep the contaminated slurry from reaching the Danube and affecting six other nations.
KOLONTAR, Hungary — Hungary on Wednesday opened a criminal investigation into this week’s toxic sludge flood and the European Union (EU) urged emergency authorities to do everything they can to keep the contaminated slurry from reaching the Danube and affecting six other nations.
Hundreds of people had to be evacuated after a gigantic sludge reservoir burst Monday at a metals plant in Ajka, a town 100 miles southwest of Budapest, the capital.
At least four people were killed, three are missing and 120 were injured as the torrent inundated homes, swept cars off roads and disgorged an estimated 35 million cubic feet of toxic waste onto several nearby towns.
It was not known Wednesday why part of the reservoir failed. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the plant and reservoir had been inspected only two weeks earlier and no irregularities had been found.
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National Police Chief Jozsef Hatala decided to take over the investigation because of its importance and complexity, police spokeswoman Monika Benyi said, adding that a criminal case had been opened by the country’s top investigative body into possible on-the-job carelessness.
The reservoir, more than 1,000 feet long and 500 yards wide, was no longer leaking Wednesday but a triple-tiered protective wall was being built around its damaged area.
The red sludge is a byproduct of the refining of bauxite into alumina, the basic material for manufacturing aluminum. It contains heavy metals and is toxic if ingested. Treated sludge is often stored in ponds where the water eventually evaporates, leaving behind a dried red claylike soil.
The red torrent has reached the Marcal River but it was not clear Wednesday how far down the river it had spread. Emergency workers were pouring 1,000 tons of plaster into the water to try to bind the sludge and keep it from flowing into the Danube, 45 miles away.
The Hungarian Water Regulation Authority estimated Tuesday it would take the sludge five days to reach the Danube, one of Europe’s key waterways. South of Hungary, the Danube flows through Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Moldova before emptying into the Black Sea.
Initial pH measurements showed the sludge had an extremely alkaline value of 13 after the spill.
The European Union said it feared the toxic flood could turn into an ecological disaster for several nations and urged Hungarian authorities to focus all efforts on keeping the sludge from the Danube.
“It is important that we do … everything possible that it would not go, that it would not endanger the Danube,” said EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik.
MAL Rt., the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company that owns the Ajkai plant, has insisted the red sludge is not considered hazardous waste according to EU standards.
The company has also rejected criticism that it should have taken more precautions to shore up the reservoir.
In Hungary’s hardest-hit towns, emergency workers and construction crews in respirators and other hazmat gear strained Wednesday to clear roads and homes coated by thick red sludge and caustic muddy water.