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Hungary spill plant to restart, villagers return

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BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary was due on Friday to restart the plant that flooded parts of the country with toxic sludge and resettle villagers on contaminated land, despite warnings from environmentalists that the area may not be safe.

A spill of industrial waste last week at the alumina plant in western Hungary, owned by firm MAL Zrt, killed nine people, injured over 120 and polluted a tributary of the Danube when the wall of a sludge reservoir failed.

The government, which has seized control of the plant, said it would restart it on Friday. Disaster crews said people evacuated from the nearby village of Kolontar would be allowed to move back to their homes in the afternoon.

Environmental group Greenpeace urged the government to keep the plant shut because the cause of the disaster was still unclear, and said it was “entirely irresponsible” to let villagers return home because no data showed the area was safe.

“Greenpeace Hungary asks the government to suspend the plan to restart production at the plant until the causes of the disaster are clarified and environmental and health risks decrease significantly,” the environmental group said.

Villagers would be allowed to return to Kolontar from midday, and were advised to wear a dust mask at all times, said a spokeswoman for disaster crews, Gyorgyi Tottos.

“We have been offered a large shipment of dust masks, so there is more than enough for everyone,” she said. “It is mandatory to wear them, although there are no sanctions for not wearing a mask.” “Cleanup crews and heavy machinery are at work, which stirs up the dust even more,” she told Reuters, adding it was up to every resident’s individual judgement whether to return or not. She said the northern wall of the reservoir, which cracked on Saturday prompting the evacuation, had not shown further dislocation on Friday after the crack widened a few centimetres on Thursday.

Crews in Kolontar had built a 600-metre-long emergency dam crossing the village to protect the area from a potential second sludge wave, estimated at 500,000 cubic metres in case of another reservoir wall failure.

Hungarian police secured MAL’s premises on Tuesday and took over MAL’s information systems after parliament rushed through emergency legislation allowing the centre-right government to take control of the company and its assets.

Reporting by Krisztina Than and Marton Dunai