13th May 2021

EU sends experts as Hungary braces for second leak of toxic sludge

A team of European experts flew to Hungary on Monday (11 October), as the EU member state braces itself for a second toxic spill from an aluminium plant located in the west of the country.

Emergency workers are racing to build a protective ring of rock and earth across fields just below a factory reservoir that holds the toxic bi-product material, amid warnings that a second breach is set to release a new torrent of the red sludge through the area.

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  • The sludge has swept through villages and towns, causing widespread damage (Photo: friedrich glorian)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Sunday that a new spill was "very likely," while environment minister Zoltan Illes described it as inevitable.

With the country still struggling to come to terms with the damage caused earlier this month when the reservoir burst, Mr Orban's centre-right government last week issued an appear for help from the EU's Civil Protection Mechanism.

The resulting five-man team of European experts from France, Belgium, Sweden, Austria and Germany is set to start work on Monday evening or Tuesday morning.

Tasks will include an impact assessment of damage caused to local wildlife and water, together with suggestions on how to decontaminate the sludge in urban and agricultural areas.

The pollution hit-squad will be brought directly to the city of Ajka where the aluminium plant is located, while European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will discuss the issue in Budapest with Mr Orban on Tuesday as part of an previously arranged visit.

Mr Orban has said that those responsible for the disaster will bear the financial consequences, with the chief executive of the industrial plant, Zoltan Bakonyi, taken into police custody on Monday for questioning. The government has also announced the temporary nationalisation of the company until the crisis is over.

Commission officials in Brussels say they will come forward new proposals later this month to tackle similar accidents in the future, but appeared to rule out Hungarian support from the European Social Fund.

A spokesman said the social fund covered costs incurred by public bodies after a 'natural catastrophe'. "There is [also] a threshold only above which a member can apply," said regional policy spokesman Ton van Lierop. "For Hungary, it would be €591 million. To the best of our information, this threshold would not be met," he added.

Seven people died after the reservoir burst on 4 October, releasing an estimated 700,000 cubic metres of toxic sludge that wreaked havoc in villages and towns.

More than 120 people were hospitalised with burns, with hundreds of families currently evacuated from the area.

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