BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary’s premier warned on Saturday that the wall of a damaged industrial reservoir could collapse, threatening a second spill of toxic red sludge, and a nearby village was evacuated as a precaution.
About one million cubic meters of the waste material leaked out of the alumina plant reservoir into several villages and waterways earlier this week, killing seven people, injuring 123 and fouling some rivers including a local branch of the Danube.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban said that the wall of the damaged reservoir had cracks in it and was likely to collapse.
“Thank God, we have managed to rescue the large majority of people after the dam burst on Monday, but the region has been practically destroyed,” Orban told a news conference in Budapest after visiting the disaster-hit area in western Hungary.
He said the government was ready to foot the entire bill of the rescue and recovery effort, but it was too early at this stage to make precise estimates about the size of the damage.
Earlier on Saturday, Gyorgy Bakondi, head of the National Disaster Unit, told the daily Magyar Nemzet in an interview the final bill could top 10 billion forints ($50.48 million). He said checks were made of all similar reservoirs in Hungary.
Orban said Hungary had launched a disaster relief fund, which accepted contributions from Hungarians across the world.
Orban, who called the spill Hungary’s worst ecological disaster to date, said there was now a high risk of up to 500,000 cubic meters of even thicker sludge escaping the reservoir due to a deterioration of a wall in the stricken part.
“The detached parts of the dam are growing apart, the distance between them widened by 7 cm from late last night until this morning ... so it is very likely that we have to reckon on this wall collapsing,” Orban said in the town of Ajka, where the alumina plant that owns the reservoir is located.
He said the central European country had the tools needed to stop any new contamination from reaching the Danube via smaller rivers in case of another spill.
Orban said 715 people were evacuated from the village of Kolontar, hard-hit by Monday’s spill, to Ajka as a precaution.
The national news agency MTI said crews were building a new 4- to 5-meter (13- to 16.5-foot)-high dam in Kolontar to ward off any fresh sludge inundation.
“We have to stay here. We have no place to go. Our house is on a hill so if the mud would reach our house the whole village would be destroyed,” a woman, who was evacuated from the village told Reuters TV at the shelter set up in a sports hall in Ajka.
“All the lower parts of Kolontar are completely lost. That part of Kolontar doesn’t exist.”
Hungary declared a state of emergency in three counties on Tuesday after sludge from the bauxite refining plant flooded Kolontar, parts of the town of Devecser and another small village about 160 km (100 miles) west of Budapest.
Disaster crews were also poised to evacuate the nearby town of Devecser, with 5,400 people, if necessary.
The prime minister said he would inform parliament about the findings of an investigation on Monday and reiterated his view that the disaster was likely the result of human error.
“We all are astonished because we are not aware of any information that could reduce (the likelihood of) human responsibility. My point is that behind this tragedy, there must have been some human errors and mistakes,” he said.
“Regarding the consequences ... for those responsible, I can say that they will be proportionate to the extent of the damage, in every respect,” he told a news conference in Budapest.
He said a decision on whether to allow the plant to resume bauxite refining would not be made before Monday.
Many people suffered from burns and eye ailments caused by contact with sludge, and it killed fish in some nearby rivers. But there were no reports of serious damage to the main branch of the Danube, which passes through many European countries.
Environmental group Greenpeace said villages that bore the brunt of the sludge torrent could suffer in the longer term due to soil contamination affecting the water base and eco-system.
Editing by Mark Heinrich