End of the Blue Danube? Ecological catastrophe looms as toxic sludge flows towards river

By Mail Foreign Service
Last updated at 6:36 PM on 6th October 2010

  • Major threat to water supplies after dam breaks
  • Four dead and hundreds treated for serious chemical burns

A state of emergency has been declared in the Hungarian region submerged by toxic sludge because the chemical flood is threatening water supplies by rushing towards the Danube River.

The lethal tidal wave of poisonous red mud burst from a reservoir of toxic waste belonging to an alumina plant in the town of Ajka and flooded a 16-square mile area.

At least four people were killed, 120 were treated for serious chemical burns and six remain missing after the tsunami of poison surged through several towns around 100 miles southwest of Budapest.

See the video below ...

The source: The ruptured wall of the red sludge reservoir at the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant in Kolontar

The source: The ruptured wall of the red sludge reservoir at the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant in Kolontar

Water hazard: Workers from the Pannon Chemical University test the water of Torna stream in Kolontar

Water hazard: Workers from the Pannon Chemical University test the water of Torna stream in Kolontar

Painted the town red: An aerial view of mud covered houses in Kolontar

Painted the town red: An aerial view of mud covered houses in Kolontar

Waterways: This map illustates how the sludge could flow to the Danube from the affected towns of Kolontar and Devecser via the Marcal - several of the Danube's tributaries are underground

Waterways: This map illustates how the sludge could flow to the Danube from the affected towns of Kolontar and Devecser via the Marcal - several of the Danube's tributaries are underground

A 12ft-high wave of the red sludge gushed through streets and houses of Kolontar and Debencser, the two towns worst affected, sweeping cars off roads and damaging bridges.

Around 35.3 million cubic feet (1 million cubic meters) had now poured from the reservoir at the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant in what Environmental Affairs State Secretary Zoltan Illes called an 'ecological catastrophe.'

Hundreds were evacuated in the aftermath of the disaster on Monday, but the incident now has the possibility of becoming a much wider ecological disaster affecting multiple countries if the chemical sludge poisons the Danube.

Scale: Diggers working beneath the broken dam are dwarfed its huge walls while right, a man peers through a hole in a hedge at what is left of his garden in Kolontar
Scale: Diggers working beneath the broken dam are dwarfed its huge walls while right, a man peers through a hole in a hedge at what is left of his garden in Kolontar

Scale: Diggers working beneath the broken dam are dwarfed its huge walls while right, a man peers through a hole in a hedge at what is left of his garden in Kolontar

Drowned: Huge pools of the toxic red sludge have formed in flat areas

Drowned: Huge pools of the toxic red sludge have formed in flat areas

Emergency workers wearing masks and chemical protection gear rushed to pour 1,000 tons of plaster into the Marcal River in an attempt to bind the sludge and keep it from flowing on to the Danube some 45 miles away.

The 1,775-mile-long Danube passes through four countries from its origins in Germany to the Black Sea and is one of the continent's greatest treasuries of wildlife.

It is the longest in Europe, bar the Volga (2,293), which only passes through Russia, and the longest in the European Union.

The material in the sludge, alumina, is a waste product of aluminum production that contains heavy metals and is toxic if ingested.

Proximity: The chemical reservoir is the large area at the front of this picture, while the town of Kolontar is visible at the top

Proximity: The chemical reservoir is the large area at the front of this picture, while the town of Kolontar is visible at the top

Submerged: This aerial view of Kolontar shows the extent to which the red mud flooded the streets

Submerged: This aerial view of Kolontar shows the extent to which the red mud flooded the streets

Sludge dam: An aerial photo of the reservoir of red mud, which burst its walls

Sludge dam: An aerial photo of the reservoir of red mud, which burst its walls

Still moving: A powerful river of poisonous red mud flows through Kolontar

Still moving: A powerful river of poisonous red mud flows through Kolontar

While it is not usually considered a hazardous substance, in this instance it has proved fatal.

Among the dead were two women, a young man and a three-year-old child, and people being treated for chemical burns described how the caustic material melted through their clothes.

Two of the 120 injured are in critical condition and their chances may worsen before they improve because chemical burns can take days to emerge.

Dr. Peter Jakabos of Gyor Hospital explained on Hungarian state TV that injured people need to seek treatment because seemingly superficial injuries can turn deadly as the chemicals slowly burn through to deeper tissue.

In the town of Devecser, the relatives of a man airlifted to hospital told how the flood of toxic sludge had 'burned him to the bone'.

'When I heard the rumble of the flood, all the time I had was to jump out the window and run to higher ground,' said housewife Tunde Erdelyi.

Her husband escaped without serious injury but his uncle was flown by helicopter to Budapest after suffering horrific burns.

Pile-up: Overturned cars that were swept away by the red rush are stacked outside a flooded house

Pile-up: Overturned cars that were swept away by the red rush are stacked outside a flooded house

Wheelspin: A car struggles for control in a flooded area of Devecser

Wheelspin: A car struggles for control in a flooded area of Devecser

Evacuated: An injured man arrives by helicopter at Budaoers airport after being airlifted from Devecser

Evacuated: An injured man arrives by helicopter at Budaoers airport after being airlifted from Devecser