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Hungarians Doubt Recovery From Sludge Disaster

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Hungarians Doubt Recovery From Sludge Disaster

Europe

Hungarians Doubt Recovery From Sludge Disaster

Hungarians Doubt Recovery From Sludge Disaster

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The death toll from this week's industrial disaster in Hungary reached seven on Friday when another body was recovered.

Dozens more are still being treated for burns received when millions of gallons of toxic waste escaped from storage reservoir on Monday. The red tide covered villages and farmland in poisonous red sludge after part of the retaining wall collapsed.

Many doubt the area can ever recover.

The first signs of the disaster start many miles before the spill site -–highway asphalt is streaked in red and there is a steady exodus of mud-laden trucks heading away from Kolontar.

The name of this small town may soon join those of Bhopal and Chernobyl as symbols of manmade disasters. Walls and streetlights are stained red to a height of 3 yards. Hundreds of soldiers, policemen and volunteers, equipped with face masks and rubber boots, are hosing down streets and homes and shoveling mud onto trucks.

The bucolic region looks like a horror movie: 16 square miles of landscape — all painted red — cornfields, gardens, woods and the first stories of many homes.

Schoolteacher Maria Gerencser was at home on Monday at noon when she saw the torrent of red sludge disgorged from the toxic waste resevoir 4 miles away. She was able to find shelter in her attic.

"The downstairs is finished, my car has finished, my bicycle is finished, the garden, the yard and everything," she said.

About 250 families have been evacuated and the most immediate concern is health.

The red toxic waste from the aluminum factory contains heavy metals and small amounts of radioactivity that can cause cancer and long-term contamination of the environment and local crops.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited the disaster site Thursday.

"The pollution is most serious thing after the losing of human life, because we don't know exactly what the size is and the seriousness of the special material, so I think it is a serious ecological catastrophe," he said.

One of the biggest concerns had been possible contamination of the Danube. Already, local tributaries into Europe's major waterway have been declared dead. They are stained red and devoid of aquatic life.

Emergency crews have poured gypsum and acetic acid -– or vinegar -– into the waterways to neutralize the muck. The sludge reached the Danube on Thursday. But Gyorgy Tottos, a spokeswoman for the national rescue agency, said Friday's testing of the river's waters was much more positive.

"On Monday the pH level was 13; very high," she said. "But today it is 8.3; this level is safe."

But Tottos says some local residents feel there is no future for them here.

"The people have the chance if they would like to come back to Kolontar, to have a house here, but if someone says, 'No thank you. Never again in my life,' then the government will have to find a new place with a new house."

There is slightly more optimism among officials of those countries further downstream on the Danube that are taking river samples every few hours.

Ecologists say the accident in Kolontar was waiting to happen, however. They say along the Danube there are hundreds of communist-era waste-storage reservoirs -– many of them aging and poorly monitored.