Europe

Hungary sludge death toll rises after two bodies found

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Media captionThe BBC's Duncan Kennedy: "The mud is all around. You can't escape it"

The death toll following the spill of a large amount of toxic red sludge from an industrial plant in western Hungary has risen to seven, officials say.

Disaster unit chief Tibor Dobson said two bodies had been found near the town of Devecser, but were likely residents missing from Kolontar, a town nearby.

Earlier, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the River Danube was no longer under threat of widespread pollution.

Mr Orban said the situation had now been brought "under control".

Experts have been pouring large quantities of clay and acid into affected waterways in an effort to neutralise the alkaline pollutants.

'Hope'

Kolontar and Devecser were the towns hardest hit when up to 700,000 cubic metres (24.7m cu ft) of red sludge flooded from a burst reservoir at an alumina plant in Ajka on Monday.

Officials had earlier put the size of the spill at 1m cubic metres.

The sludge reached the Danube on Thursday, pushing the pH level to 9, well below the pH13.5 measured in the worst-hit tributaries. By Friday morning, the pH level had fallen to 8-8.2.

Water is pH7 when neutral, with the safety levels ranging from pH6.5 to pH8.5.

"This data gives us hope... and we have not experienced any damage on the main Danube so far," Mr Dobson told the Reuters news agency.

Prime Minister Orban, visiting Bulgaria, said: "The good news is that we have succeeded in bringing it under control and very probably waters threatening the environment will not enter the Danube, even on Hungarian territory.

"We managed to take control of the situation in time."

Interior Minister Sandor Pinter said the Danube was no longer at risk of biological or environmental damage, and drinking water supplies had not been affected.

'Surprising' arsenic levels

However, the BBC's Duncan Kennedy in the affected region says there is an additional concern - the weather.

Recent days of rain have kept the sludge wet and officials now fear that warmer and sunnier weather will create dust that could spread toxins - and possibly low-level radioactive materials - into the atmosphere.

If that happens, our correspondent says, the authorities will have to decide whether to evacuate more areas. They have already urged locals to wear masks.

Environment Minister Zoltan Illes confirmed that the sludge - which now covers a 41 sq km (16 sq mile) area - had a "high content of heavy metals", including carcinogens.

"If that [were to] dry out then the wind can blow that heavy metal contamination through the respiratory system," he said.

Greenpeace said samples of the sludge it took on Tuesday contained "surprisingly high" levels of arsenic and mercury. It said the detected arsenic concentration was twice the amount normally found in sludge.

"We are afraid that the arsenic might go into the groundwater and pollute the drinking water in the area. This is a serious problem when we are thinking about the long term effects," one of Greenpeace's scientists, Herwig Schuster, told the BBC.

"We fear the mercury will go down the rivers and enter the foodchain."

The company responsible for the alumina plant, MAL Hungarian Aluminium Production and Trade Company, has offered its condolences to the families of the bereaved but insists it did nothing wrong.

It said it was devoting "all its energies and efforts" to tackling the spill, and had released 110,000 euros ($150,000) so far to help with the clean-up.

The sludge has caused massive damage to Hungarian villages and towns close to the plant, as well as a wide swathe of farmland. All life in the Marcal river, which feeds the Danube, has been "extinguished".

Those who lost their lives were believed to have drowned, with the depth of the flood reaching 2m (6.5ft) in places, but many of the 150 injured suffered chemical burns. One more Kolontar resident is still missing.

One woman told the BBC about the moment the sludge came to Kolontar.

"I went outside to check on the dog because it was barking like mad and the sludge was just coming towards us. The sludge took our car, lifted it up and took it along. It was just like a boat," Niki Barta said.

"Then, we found it the next day about a mile-and-a-half away."

Meanwhile, emergency crews have begun draining a second industrial reservoir at the spill site to prevent a repeat of the disaster. Gypsum was being dropped into the Marcal river from helicopters to neutralise it.

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