Hungarians Doubt Recovery From Sludge Disaster

  • The walls of the aluminum plant reservoir broke on Oct.4, sending a wave of stinking red sludge through seven villages in the west of the country and leaving a trail of devastation across the area.
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    The walls of the aluminum plant reservoir broke on Oct.4, sending a wave of stinking red sludge through seven villages in the west of the country and leaving a trail of devastation across the area.
    Getty Images
  • A dog is covered with mud in Devecser on Oct. 5 after the village was flooded.
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    A dog is covered with mud in Devecser on Oct. 5 after the village was flooded.
    Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images
  • Hungarian firefighters pump sludge from a yard flooded by the toxic mud in Devecser, Oct. 6.
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    Hungarian firefighters pump sludge from a yard flooded by the toxic mud in Devecser, Oct. 6.
    Bela Szandelszky/AP
  • Residents return to check their homes in Kolontar on Oct. 6 , two days after a wave of toxic red mud swept through the small village.
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    Residents return to check their homes in Kolontar on Oct. 6 , two days after a wave of toxic red mud swept through the small village.
    Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images
  • A resident inspects his belongings on Oct. 6 after a wave of toxic red mud swept through his village.
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    A resident inspects his belongings on Oct. 6 after a wave of toxic red mud swept through his village.
    Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images
  • A Hungarian soldier, wearing protective gear, shovels toxic mud out of a house in Devecser, Oct. 7. The toxic red sludge that inundated three Hungarian villages reached Europe's Danube River on Thursday, but no immediate damage was evident, Hungary's rescue operations agency said.
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    A Hungarian soldier, wearing protective gear, shovels toxic mud out of a house in Devecser, Oct. 7. The toxic red sludge that inundated three Hungarian villages reached Europe's Danube River on Thursday, but no immediate damage was evident, Hungary's rescue operations agency said.
    Bela Szandelszky/AP
  • A Hungarian firefighter cleans a street flooded by toxic mud in Devecser, Hungary, Oct. 7. The flood of toxic mud killed several people and injured more than 100. Some people are still reported missing.
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    A Hungarian firefighter cleans a street flooded by toxic mud in Devecser, Hungary, Oct. 7. The flood of toxic mud killed several people and injured more than 100. Some people are still reported missing.
    Darko Bandic/AP Photo
  • Laszlo Kiss, an official of the Hungarian environmental service,  tests a water sample from the Danube River in Komarom, Hungary, on Oct. 8. In a statement on its website, MAL Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Co. said that it had released $150,000 in aid money to local authorities to help deal with the disaster.
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    Laszlo Kiss, an official of the Hungarian environmental service, tests a water sample from the Danube River in Komarom, Hungary, on Oct. 8. In a statement on its website, MAL Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Co. said that it had released $150,000 in aid money to local authorities to help deal with the disaster.
    Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images
  • An aerial photo taken on Oct. 8, 2010, shows the ruptured wall of a red sludge reservoir of the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant in Kolontar, Hungary. A wave of toxic red mud swept through the small village, killing five and injuring scores more.
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    An aerial photo taken on Oct. 8, 2010, shows the ruptured wall of a red sludge reservoir of the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant in Kolontar, Hungary. A wave of toxic red mud swept through the small village, killing five and injuring scores more.
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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.

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