The Hungarian government has declared a state of emergency in three regions after several towns were engulfed by a flood of toxic sludge from a chemical plant.
At least four people are dead after a reservoir failure at the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant in Ajka, a town 100 miles south-west of capital Budapest, saw 3.2 million cubic metres of sludge leak out.
Six people are reported missing and at least 120 are injured, and there are fears the Danube and other key rivers could be threatened by the toxic sludge.
Several hundred tonnes of plaster has been poured into the Marcal River to bind the toxic waste and prevent it from flowing further downstream. Environmental affairs state secretary Zoltan Illes called the flood an “ecological catastrophe” and said the sludge could reach the Raba and Danube rivers.
He suspended activity at the plant and ordered the company to repair the damaged reservoir.
Disaster workers said 390 residents had to be temporarily relocated and 110 were rescued from the flooded towns, including Kolontal, Devecser and Somlovasarhely. Firefighters and soldiers swept through the region carrying out clean-up tasks with bulldozers.
The sludge, a waste product in aluminium production, contains heavy metals and is toxic if ingested. Many of the injured sustained burns as the sludge seeped through their clothes, and two face life-threatening conditions.
Two women, a young man and a three-year-old child were killed in the flooding. The injured were being monitored because the chemical burns caused by the sludge could take days to emerge and what may seem like superficial injuries could later cause damage to deeper tissue.
Local environmentalists say they have tried to call the government’s attention to the risks of red sludge for years, pointing to a 2003 report in which they estimated the waste at 30M.t.
“Accumulated during decades […] red sludge is, by volume, the largest amount of toxic waste in Hungary,” the Clear Air Action Group said, adding that producing one ton of alumina resulted in two tonnes of toxic waste.