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EU: Hungarian Toxic Flood Threatens Danube River

  • Stefan Bos

A Hungarian soldier, wearing chemical protection gear, cleans a street flooded by toxic waste in the town of Devecser, 05 Oct 2010

A Hungarian soldier, wearing chemical protection gear, cleans a street flooded by toxic waste in the town of Devecser, 05 Oct 2010

The European Union says flooding in Hungary that has killed four people and injured more than 100 others could affect half a dozen nations as poisonous mud threatens to enter the Danube River, one of Europe's main waterways. The flooding began on Monday when a dam holding back toxic waste at a metals plant burst west of the Hungarian capital.

Local residents, shouting "run away, run away," panic amid fears of a new avalanche of toxic red mud. Kolontar is one of several Hungarian villages and towns that have been hit by what authorities say is the worst ecological disaster in the nation's history.

A gigantic reservoir of sludge burst on Monday at a metals plant in the town Ajka, about 160 kilometers southwest of Budapest.

On Wednesday, visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg expressed his condolences in Budapest for what he called "the terrible loss of life." He said the United States stands ready to help Hungary.

The European Union warned that if the waste reaches the Danube River, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Moldova might be threatened with volatile heavy metals.

Officials say that more than one million cubic meters of toxic mud have engulfed the Hungarian village of Kolontar and other areas.

Villager Robert Lemann says he saw his elderly parents suffering.

He says his 82-year-old mother was able to escape the mud by climbing onto furniture near the window. But, he says, his father's legs were burned by the toxic waste.

Another villager, a farmer, says he fears that agricultural lands in the region have been ruined for generations to come.

He says the sludge killed his chickens, geese and pigs. It also destroyed his corn and cabbage crop.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has urged the people in the affected region not to eat locally grown food. He says the mud is not radioactive. But investigators say they have found some radioactive materials in the sludge.

The Budapest government declared a regional state of emergency on Tuesday. And Hungarian authorities are investigating the cause of the spill.

The company responsible for the accident says there were no signs of an impending disaster and that up to 98 percent of the waste held behind the burst dam remains in the reservoir.

But Hungary's State Secretary for Environment, Zoltan Illes, says he is not convinced.

He says he has ordered the company to suspend operations.

Residents of Kolontar say their village has been killed by toxic waste.

Rescue teams continue to search for the missing. But while these workers wear full protective gear with masks and respirators, residents searched for their possessions with little more than rubber gloves for protection. The sludge is so corrosive that it has burned people as it seeped through their clothing.