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Hungarian Authorities Arrest Metals Plant Director in Toxic Spill Probe

  • Stefan Bos

A Hungarian firefighter wearing protective gear walks through a street flooded by toxic red sludge in Devecser, Hungary, 09 Oct 2010

Hungarian police on Monday arrested the managing director of a metals plant where a reservoir burst last week, flooding several towns with toxic waste - killing at least eight people and injuring more than 100 others. Before his arrest, Zoltan Bakonyi said his company was not guilty of negligence, as authorities contend.

In the Hungarian town of Devecser, residents are angry. A regional medical official tells them not to panic over the red toxic sludge that has flooded their picturesque town of over 5,000 people. "It's just unpleasant powder," officials say.

"We almost can't breathe even though you wear masks," say people attending the gathering at the local cultural center.

On the outskirts of Devecser, authorities retrieve the bodies of victims of last week's toxic spill from the nearby metals plant that has contaminated an estimated 40 square kilometers of countryside, killing virtually all life in two tributaries of the Danube River.

Shortly before his arrest, the managing director of the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company, Zoltan Bakonyi, said that his firm is not at fault.

BAKONYI: "Never, never. This wasn't a human mistake. It is very difficult to say something. It's a terrible problem."

BOS: "You didn't expect this to happen?"

BAKONYI: "Never."

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban disagrees.

Mr. Orban announced Bakonyi's arrest to parliament. The disaster is one of Europe's worst environmental accidents since the explosion at Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986.

"My point is that behind this tragedy, some human errors and mistakes must exist," said Mr. Orban. "We will reveal that. And the consequences will be very serious and tough as much as you can imagine. And the law can provide for it."

The flood of toxic waste from the metals plant has left Devecser's newly-elected mayor, Tamas Toldi, visibly shaken.

The mayor says he came to office only a few hours before the disaster struck his town and that he was elected on his promise to turn Devecser into an "ecologically clean place to live."

Now Toldi is calling on townspeople to prepare to evacuate as the Hungarian government warns that another wall at the metal plant's reservoir has developed cracks.

Environmentalists and local authorities have warned residents that they might never be able to return to the region, which resembles a martian landscape - red and lifeless.

The sludge, which contains a byproduct of bauxite - a material used in manufacturing aluminum - has made its way to one of Europe's main waterways, the Danube River, potentially threatening drinking water for millions of people.

Authorities say the contamination of the Danube is still within acceptable levels.

So far, an estimated 800,000 cubic meters of sludge has spilled from the metals plant. But authorities warn that another 500,000 cubic meters of thicker, more toxic waste, might leak from the plant's reservoir, if the northern retaining wall breaks.

A team of European Union environmental experts is in Hungary to assist in assessing the damage from the spill.