Hungary Continues to Battle Its Toxic Flood

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Bernadett Szabo / Reuters

A resident rescues a cat on Oct. 5, 2010, from toxic sludge that flooded the village of Devecser, 93 miles (150 km) west of Budapest the day before

With four people dead, more than 120 injured and up to 390 evacuated, Hungarian authorities are fighting to prevent further chaos following the nation's biggest-ever chemical spill. The leak, which started at an aluminum plant in Ajka, a town 100 miles (160 km) southwest of Budapest, has pumped at least 35 million cubic feet (1 million cu m) of toxic sludge from the plant's water reservoir into nearby rivers since Oct. 4. And while Hungary has faced other environmental disasters — including a cyanide spill in the Tisza River in 2000 — none compare to the current crisis. "No one died" in that earlier incident, says Eva Csobod, director of the Hungarian office of the Regional Environmental Centre (REC). "In this spill, we already have four people dead, and two were children. I would say this is the worst Hungary has ever had."

And it looks like it will only get worse. By Oct. 7, the tidal wave of toxic red sludge — made up of arsenic, cadmium and lead — was seeping into the Danube by way of the Raba River. Experts now fear Hungary's national disaster may turn into a regional one, with chemicals potentially reaching six countries. Officials in Croatia, Serbia and Romania have already started testing the Danube and have their fingers crossed that the river's volume will help dilute any toxins. But Gabor Figeczky, acting head of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Hungary, isn't optimistic. "Now the spill has gotten through to the Raba River and then to the Danube, and it still has a much higher alkaline concentration than we saw before," he told Deutsche Welle. "It's much worse than we expected [on Wednesday]."

As nations bordering the Danube such as Serbia and Bulgaria brace for contamination, Hungary is still struggling to deal with the devastation of the initial spill, which flooded the villages of Devecsar, Kolontar and Somlovasarhely in northwest Hungary. Emergency-response teams, including the Hungarian armed forces, began to evacuate residents within hours of the spill and staved off the contamination of a fourth village by treating and removing the sludge. Despite that good work, authorities say up to 7,000 people in these and four other villages have been directly affected. And leaders are struggling to measure the spill's human and environmental costs. "Nothing like this has happened in Hungary before," Tamas Toldi, mayor of Devecsar, told TIME. "Right now the most important thing is to save people from the [flood]."

Toldi admitted that even those people who have been safely evacuated face an uncertain future. Authorities reported on Oct. 6 that up to 2,000 acres (800 hectares) of farmland and 8.6 acres (3.5 hectares) of populated areas have been poisoned. "The [chemical] sludge has gone into houses and has destroyed and corroded everything," he said. "It's also going into the soil, and we don't know how we'll produce healthy food in our fields."

Hungary's leaders paint the dangers of the spill in bleak terms. According to Zoltan Illes, Hungary's State Secretary for the Environment, the waste is "carcinogenic" and may pose a long-term threat. He also worries the wind and water systems will spread toxins far and wide. Gergo Simon, an official with the Air Working Group, a Hungarian environmental agency, told Hungary's MTI news service that lead particles in the waste pose a special danger to children, and other experts warn the sludge may contain radioactive particles.

Experts admit there is much they don't understand about the disaster, since there is no precedent in Hungary and few internationally. "We are still collecting facts," government spokeswoman Anna Nagy says. "We are asking scientists to investigate the question of impact." She says the big question is when people can start going home. "Right now, no one knows when people can start cultivating their gardens again, and how the toxins in the ground might react with things such as construction materials." Officials still need to assess the safety of drinking water.

Authorities still haven't determined the cause of the spill. MAL Zrt, the Hungarian aluminum company that owns the plant where the accident occurred, has said its facilities follow waste-management regulations and are inspected regularly. Nagy confirmed that an inspection of the facility took place as recently as Sept. 23 — just 12 days before the spill. Even so, the plant has been shut down, and Hungary's National Investigation Office has already launched an investigation into possible negligence.

Discovering the cause of the disaster could prevent future accidents and lead to court-issued damages to fund the cleanup. But finding fault will bring little solace to villagers who either have lost their homes or face the prospect of returning to a poisoned landscape. "It's difficult to imagine the impact of this disaster," Toldi told TIME. "Homes and livelihoods have been lost."