Company Director Detained Over Toxic Sludge

Police in Hungary have detained the director of an aluminum company that generated a deadly flood of caustic red sludge. He's being held on suspicion of public endangerment and environmental damage, after the sludge flowed out of a reservoir at the plant into nearby villages and streams. BBC Correspondent Nick Thorpe talks to Steve Inskeep about the spill's status.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

In Hungary, more fallout from the toxic red mud that poured out of a reservoir, flooded several villages and killed eight people, injuring hundreds more. The full extent of the environmental damage remains a question. But yesterday, the managing director of the company that owns the reservoir was arrested and charged with criminal negligence. Nick Thorpe is covering the disaster for the BBC. He joins us now.

Good morning.

Mr. NICK THORPE (BBC): Good morning to you.

WERTHEIMER: What does this arrest say about what has happened? Are people angry there? Is this a response to the anger?

Mr. THORPE: The arrest was actually announced by the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaking to parliament. He says that there is a well-founded suspicion that the company did not do everything to prevent this disaster.

There are two main lines of the criminal investigation. One is whether the company were effectively overloading the reservoir, which was at the source of this accident just over a week ago. The other possibility, and this is the one which the prime minister seemed to be hinting at in his comments anyway, is that perhaps the management might have known about the cracks appearing and didn't act upon that.

We've been speaking here on the ground, certainly, to workers from the factory. They feel they're being blamed, effectively, for this whole disaster. But they point out that they've also been badly affected, that they live in some of these villages and the small town which were hit by this tidal wave of sludge.

They also say they're very keen for the factory to start again, as soon as possible. They're worried for their jobs. This whole small town of 35,000 people or so, probably one in 10 jobs directly depends on this factory.

WERTHEIMER: Have you seen the villages now? It's been a week, as you said. What does it look like now?

Mr. THORPE: Now it's quite astonishing. I've been here actually at the site of the accident for more than a week now. So I saw it within a day or so of when the sludge first hit. Everything is still red in this incredible red swathe of countryside. On the other hand, what's different, is all the local people have gone. They were evacuated from this village of Kolontar, which was worst hit by it.

What is happening, though, it's by no mean a ghost town, because there are so many people working on this huge protective barrier. And to do that they're having to bulldoze some of these badly damaged houses, basically to make way for this huge protective barrier. Which, if you can imagine, it stretches across the fields in a kind of ring, from the hill in Kolontar on which the church still stands, in a circle round - this is the village, just effectively, down through the valley, from the stricken reservoir.

They're worried that the rest of that reservoir will now collapse. They've said it's inevitable, sooner or later. They don't know when, because it's already badly cracked. So all they can do now, is, effectively, build this huge protective barrier to try to contain any future spills.

WERTHEIMER: What about the notion that this sludge is creating an unsafe level of pollutants in the air? That these villages may not be habitable for some time?

Mr. THORPE: This is a very big concern. And we know for sure, that as this sludge dries out it's turning to dust. Ironically, that dust is being stirred up by all the heavy equipment building this new protective barrier, by the very vehicles involved in the clean up operation.

This is the biggest single immediate health concern, both for the emergency service workers on the ground - the army, the fire brigade and so on - and all the people working on people the barrier. But also for those local people who are still hoping to stay in their homes in their town.

WERTHEIMER: Nick Thorpe, thank you very much.

Mr. THORPE: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: We've speaking with Nick Thorpe of the BBC.

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