By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Hungary’s disaster area in Kolontar and Devecser.
KOLONTAR/DEVECSER (BosNewsLife)– Hungarian police on Monday detained the managing director of a metals plant where a reservoir burst last week, flooding several towns with toxic waste – killing at least eight people and injuring more than 100 others. Before his arrest, Zoltan Bakonyi told BosNewsLife that his company was not guilty of negligence, as authorities contend.
In the Hungarian town of Devecser, residents are angry. A regional medical official told them not to panic over the red toxic sludge that has flooded their picturesque town of over 5,000 people. “It’s just unpleasant powder,” officials said.
“We almost can’t breathe even though you wear masks,” said people attending the gathering at the local cultural center.
On the outskirts of Devecser, authorities were still retrieving the bodies of victims of last week’s toxic spill from the nearby metals plant that has contaminated an estimated 40 square kilometers of countryside, killing virtually all life in two tributaries of the Danube River.
Shortly before his arrest, the managing director of the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company, Zoltan Bakonyi, said that his firm is not at fault. “Never, never. This wasn’t a human mistake. It is very difficult to say something. It’s a terrible problem.” Asked whether he expected the tragedy he said: “Never”.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban disagrees. Orban, who announced Bakonyi’s arrest to parliament, made clear he blames the company for Europe’s worst environmental accidents since the explosion at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986.
“My point is that behind this tragedy, some human errors and mistakes must exist,” he said. “We will reveal that. And the consequences will be very serious and tough as much as you can imagine. And the law can provide for it.”
The flood of toxic waste from the metals plant has left Devecser’s newly-elected mayor, Tamas Toldi, visibly shaken.
The mayor told BosNewsLife that he came to office only a few hours before the disaster struck his town and that he was elected on his promise to turn Devecser into an “ecologically clean place to live.” Now Toldi is calling on townspeople to prepare to evacuate as the Hungarian government warns that another wall at the metal plant’s reservoir has developed cracks.
Further downstream, in the village of Kolontar, most of the 800 residents have been brought to safer ground. Shortly before the evacuation began, a BosNewsLife reporter watched coughing locals removing toxic waste.
“I came here to help,” said Daniel Rad, a young Roma man, as heavily armed policemen watch nearby. “”I do this for free” he said, adding that it is important to save this village.
Environmentalists and local authorities have warned residents that they might never be able to return to the region, which resembles a martian landscape – red and lifeless.
The sludge, which contains a byproduct of bauxite – a material used in manufacturing aluminum – has made its way to one of Europe’s main waterways, the Danube River, potentially threatening drinking water for millions of people.
Authorities say the contamination of the Danube is still within acceptable levels.
So far, an estimated 800,000 cubic meters of sludge has spilled from the metals plant. But authorities warn that another 500,000 cubic meters of thicker, more toxic waste, might leak from the plant’s reservoir, if the northern retaining wall breaks.
A team of European Union environmental experts arrived in Hungary Monday to assist in assessing the damage from the spill.