Hungary appeals for help

KOLONTAR, Hungary — Hungarian authorities admitted Thursday they would welcome outside expertise in cleaning up the unprecedented spill of 35 million cubic feet of toxic sludge from an aluminium factory. The disaster that destroyed several villages Monday spread as the first of the "red mud" reached the mighty Danube River at a higher concentration than environmentalists had expected.

When an artificial reservoir containing the industrial byproduct burst its bank without warning, the tidal wave of toxins drowned four people and injured scores of others. But that's not all — it has killed everything that lived in the Marcal River. Then it was carried on down to the Raba and now the Danube, which flows through Hungary's heartland and then through seven more countries before discharging into the Black Sea. The Danube first forms Hungary's border with Slovakia before heading south to the border with Croatia and then through Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine.

"The pollution entering the Danube is at a much higher PH level that we expected. It is still at a PH of around nine or 10," said Gabor Figeczky, head of WWF Hungary, an environmental campaign group. A healthy river has an alkalinity of a little over the neutral PH value of seven. "Anything above this will have severe effects."

And so the Hungarian authorities are dumping plaster into rivers to neutralize them.

How quickly the level of pollution dilutes downstream is difficult to predict.

"Yesterday I had not expected it would reach the Danube at all because the authorities might stop it, but they did not succeed," said Figeczky. He now hopes that by the time it reaches Budapest the PH will return to something close to normal. "We expect the effects of the spill will remain within the boundaries of Hungary."

Foreigners might escape the consequences, but their help would be appreciated, according Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who spoke with journalists Thursday on a visit to the affected area.

In the absence of any better ideas, the clean up has concentrated on mending the banks of the reservoir, restoring the PH level of the river and cleaning mud from houses and streets. In the long term the government plans to turn the area into forests, which would soak up any heavy metals.

But little is being done so far to clear up the sludge from the 800 hectares of affected fields, roads and drainage channels. The delay poses a potential danger:  "It is very important to correct the toxic waste as soon as possible. If they don't, the pollution will go down to the deeper parts of the soil," said Marton Vau of Greenpeace Hungary. The government, however, said underground sources of drinking water will be unaffected.

Even at the heart of the disaster clean up is slow going. In Somlovasarhelz, a team of four volunteers in rubber boots and utility gloves worked under the direction of an officer from the Civil Protection Service. One walked 50 yards to half-fill nylon sacks with sand, carried them back and spooned in loose mud and water with a shovel until the sand could soak up no more. During a cigarette break one team member pulled off a glove, revealing red-stained fingers.

"I don't think this is work for volunteers, you do not know what this red sludge contains. There have only been a few measurements done," said Figeczky. "Locals need to be there. It is important for them to clean up their houses, but from what we have heard they don't want to move back."

Orban recognised as much Thursday, promising that the government would help resettle the villages' residents.

Persistent rain has abated, giving a slightly cheerier aspect to the surreal, red and green landscape. But the drying comes with its own problems, in particular the likelihood that the fine particles that make up the mud will become airborn and will be inhaled or swallowed. Patches of sludge covering the road between Devecser and Somlovasarhely, two of the affected villages, are already pale and dusty.

Much attention has focussed on tracking the pollution's course downriver, but concern may be a misplaced. In 2000 about 3.5 million cubic feet of cyanide flowed into Hungary's Tisza river, another tributary of the Danube, from a gold mine spill and there was panic at the wholesale loss of natural life.

"But the streams and rivers feeding the Tisza were still pollution free and so it recovered in two years," said Vau. "So I do not worry about the Marcal or Raba. I worry about the possibility of life and agriculture returning to the villages hit by the spill."