Could Hungary's Toxic Flood Get Even Worse?

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Bela Szandelszky / AP

Volunteers, wearing protective gear, walk across a street covered in toxic red sludge in Devecser, Hungary, on Monday, Oct. 11, 2010

As cracks grow in the wall of a failing waste reservoir outside a Hungarian aluminum refinery, where one of the worst toxic spills in central-European history took place last week, 1,200 workers are racing against the clock to construct a protective dike to contain the sludgelike effluent if the reservoir collapses.

Gyorgyi Tottos, spokeswoman for the Hungarian government's Disaster Management Unit, told TIME that the collapse of the reservoir's crumbling wall, which is holding back 110 million gal. (500,000 cu m) of mudlike toxic waste, "is a question of time."

"We think the wall will collapse," she said by telephone from the Ajkai Timfoldgyar aluminum plant, located about 60 miles (100 km) west of Budapest, "but we don't know when."

Efforts to construct a protective barrier outside the plant's waste-reservoir system have been going on since Saturday, Oct. 9, when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced that the reservoir's main wall was in danger of collapsing and that a second toxic-waste spill, 50% to 70% of the size of the flood that burst through the reservoir on Oct. 4, was imminent.

The Oct. 4 spill was an unprecedented ecological disaster for Hungary. It killed eight people (the most recent victim was discovered in Devecser Monday afternoon), injured more than 120, overran three villages, poisoned 2,500 acres (1,000 hectares) of farmland and infected as many as three river systems, including the Danube. In an effort to prevent a repeat of that disaster, rescue workers and engineers are trying to finish the protective dike before the arrival of rain, which experts fear will put irresistible pressure on the reservoir.

Rain has been forecast for Thursday, but Tottos said the 1,200 rescue workers erecting the protective wall had completed 70% of the job by Monday and would be finished by Tuesday. "When the dike is up tomorrow [Tuesday], we can protect the villages," she said, referring to the nearby communities of Devecsar, Kolontar and Somlovasarhely.

Kolontar, which is closest to the Ajkai factory and in the greatest danger, has been completely evacuated of its 800 remaining residents, while the populations of Devecsar and Somlovasarhely remain on alert. "When the dike is up, the danger won't be over," Tottos said. "But we hope that this catastrophe will be under control and that [a flood equal to the Oct. 4 spill] will not happen again."

As authorities struggle to avert a second tidal wave of toxic red sludge, assessments of the ecological damage of the first spill are under way. On Monday, five international experts on toxic-waste management from France, Belgium, Sweden, Austria and Germany arrived in Hungary to inspect the remaining waste at the Ajkai aluminum plant and the surrounding area.

Hungarian authorities hope the panel of E.U. experts will be able to advise on the daunting prospect of cleanup. "More than 1,000 hectares of land are filled with red sludge," said Tottos. "It is a huge area, and no one knows how to replace the soil. It is a complex problem."

After inspecting the infected area over the weekend, Prime Minister Orban announced that law-enforcement authorities would pursue the management of MAL Zrt, the Hungarian owner of the Ajkai plant, for possible negligence preceding the disaster. "Someone has to answer for this," Orban said on Saturday.

On Monday, Zoltan Bakonyi, CEO of MAL Zrt, was detained for questioning by Hungarian police with the National Investigation Office. The charges authorities are considering against him include "public endangerment causing multiple deaths" and creation of environmental damage. Bakonyi faces as many as 11 years in prison combined for both charges. According to Hungarian law, Bakonyi can be held in custody for 72 hours before he must be charged or released.

Also on Monday, Orban told parliament that the government has begun the process of placing MAL Zrt "under state control and its assets under state closure." Orban said the decision was prompted by fears that MAL Zrt's owners could attempt to "siphon out" company assets that otherwise could be used to compensate families and pay for cleanup.

MAL Zrt's owners — Lajos Tolnay, Bela Petrusz and Arpad Bakonyi (Zoltan's father) — number among Hungary's richest men. Last week, MAL Zrt was criticized for offering emergency compensation of only $500 apiece to citizens injured or rendered homeless by the spill.

Calls made to MAL Zrt spokeswoman Andrea Nemeth were not returned on Monday. But a message on the MAL Zrt website expressed "condolence to the relatives of all of the victims who lost their lives in the catastrophe." In addition, MAL Zrt released a statement last week that the company adhered to safety regulations and that government inspectors regularly visited the site. (Government spokeswoman Anna Nagy confirmed to TIME that a state inspection took place at the plant as recently as Sept. 23.) Reuters reports that MAL Zrt officials claim company inspectors checked the reservoir the day of the Oct. 4 spill but found nothing untoward.

But as police weigh the company's culpability in the disaster, emergency workers are racing against time to contain the waste reservoir and avoid a second ecological catastrophe.