KOLONTAR, Hungary (Reuters) - Emergency workers in Hungary battled on Wednesday to keep a tide of toxic red sludge that spilled from an alumina plant from reaching the Raba and Danube rivers.
Interior Minister Sandor Pinter told reporters the sludge — which poured from the alumina factory’s containment pond on Monday and rushed through villages, killing four people, injuring 120 and leaving 3 missing — had so far been prevented from reaching the rivers.
Hungary declared a state of emergency in three counties after the sludge — waste produced during bauxite refining which has a strong caustic effect and heavy metal content — hit the villages of Kolontar, Devecser and others.
The cause of the spill is not known.
“We hope we will be able to contain this,” Pinter said. “At this moment we can handle the alkaline content in the river Marcal, it has not reached the river Raba.”
The Marcal flows into the Raba, which flows into the Danube, a major European waterway.
Pinter said Hungary had contacted the European Union about the spill and was examining the possibility of assistance.
The village of Kolontar lies nearest to the burst reservoir of the Ajkai Timfoldgyar Zrt plant, owned by MAL Zrt.
Disaster crews, military personnel and villagers were clearing away rubble and searching for the missing people.
Rescue workers said many people had suffered burns and eye irritation from lead and corrosive elements in the mud. The flood, estimated at about 700,000 cubic meters (24 million cubic feet), swept cars off roads and damaged bridges and houses, forcing the evacuation of about 500 residents.
Many villagers said they were unlikely to return home.
“I’m not going to take back my 3-year-old. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. We need bulldozers, not a plan to return,” said Roland Fekete.
Balazs Holczer, 35, standing in front of his house which was covered in sludge up to a height of 3 meters, said: “My wife and son were trapped inside during the spill. She put him on top of a cabinet, and she was seriously burned from the waist down. They are both in hospital. My son is still in a shock.”
The mayor of Kolontar, Karoly Tili, said 90 percent of residents were saying they would not move back because nobody could guarantee their safety.
On Tuesday, the government suspended production at the plant and police were investigating the cause of the disaster.
MAL Zrt said on Wednesday it would like to restart production at its alumina plant at the weekend, chairman Lajos Tolnay was cited as saying on local Inforadio.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said the spill may have been caused by human error and there was no sign of it being due to natural causes.
MAL Zrt said the last inspection of the reservoir on Monday had shown nothing untoward.
An expert with environmental campaign group Greenpeace told Reuters the impact from the spill could be worse than a cyanide spill at Baia Mare in Romania 10 years ago, when cyanide-tainted water was discharged from a gold mine reservoir, polluting the Tisza and Danube rivers.
Reporting by Marton Dunai and Gergely Szakacs; Writing by Krisztina Than; Editing by Janet Lawrence