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Hungary appeals for help

Red sludge disaster worsens as the mud both dries and reaches the Danube.

Hungary Red Sludge Aluminum Factory Spill
A Greenpeace activist prepares to collect water from the Marcal River to test near a bridge about 90 miles from Budapest on Oct. 7, 2010. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)

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.