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Hungary declares a state of emergency over toxic sludge


A state of emergency has been declared in three western counties of Hungary after an industrial reservoir burst its banks on Monday. Waves of toxic sludge poured through villages in the state of Veszprem, released from a chemical processing plant making Alumina. This is a crystalline substance used as the starting point for aluminium, as well as in other manufacturing processes.

Heavy rain has plagued the region in recent weeks and is thought to have been a factor in the disaster, which has killed at least 4 people and injured over 100. In the village of Kolontar, children at the school had to be evacuated and 25 people were taken to hospital with skin burns and eye irritation after coming into contact with the mud. Residents in the town of Devescer were also hit, with the mud standing at 2 metres deep in some places. Further villages are now being affected as the mud spreads.

Around 700,000 cubic metres of the red-coloured sludge is thought to have been released from the industrial plant, which is situated around 100 miles from Budapest. Though the spill occurred in Veszprem, a state of emergency has also been declared in the neighbouring counties of Gyor-Moson-Sopron and Vas, where the sludge is heading. There are even fears it could reach the Raba and Danube rivers.

Nearly 500 police officers and soldiers, as well as emergency teams from the National Disaster Unit, have been drafted in to help with the emergency, which has flooded hundreds of homes. Tonnes of plaster are being poured into the Marcal River to help bind the mud and slow its spread. The sludge is not extremely toxic, but is highly alkaline and causes a caustic reaction on the skin which has to be neutralised by washing with fresh water. The deaths were probably caused by drowning, as the speed of the first waves surprised residents nearest the plant. Within two or three minutes, sludge was rising metres deep in some nearby areas. One resident described how she grabbed her child and headed for the roof as the red slurry rose towards the ceiling of her house. Her 85-year old father was taken to hospital with severe leg injuries, after helping her onto the roof.

The source of the disaster was the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant, built in 1943. The factory is currently owned by MAL, a company founded in 1995 when the state began privatising the aluminium industry. The government says an investigation has already begun into this incident, which it is describing as the worst chemical accident in Hungary’s history.

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