- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 6, 2010

KOLONTAR, Hungary (AP) — The toxic red sludge that burst out of a Hungarian factory’s reservoir and inundated three villages reached the mighty Danube on Thursday after wreaking havoc on smaller rivers and creeks, an emergency official said.

The European Union and environmental officials feared an environmental catastrophe affecting half a dozen nations if the red sludge, a waste product of making aluminum, contaminated the Danube, Europe’s second-longest river.

Officials from several nations downstream — Croatia, Serbia and Romania — were testing the river every few hours Thursday but hoping that the Danube’s huge water volume would blunt the impact of the spill.

The reservoir break Monday disgorged a toxic torrent into creeks that flow into waterways connected to the Danube. Creeks in Kolontar, the western Hungarian village closest to the spill site, were swollen ochre red days later, and villagers said they were devoid of fish. Kolontar is 45 miles south of the Danube.

The red sludge reached the western branch of the Danube early Thursday and its broad, main stretch by noon, Hungarian rescue agency spokesman Tibor Dobson told the state MTI news agency.

He said up to now there were “no heavy metals in the drinking water” of the affected region, but he did not address concerns that the caustic slurry might contain toxic heavy metals.

Mr. Dobson said the pH content of the red sludge entering the Danube had been reduced to the point where it was unlikely to cause further environmental damage. It tested earlier at 13 and now was down to under 10, and no dead fish have been spotted where the slurry was entering the Danube, he said. Normal pH levels for surface water range from 6.5 to 8.5.

But the sludge devastated less mighty waterways.

“Life in the Marcal River has been extinguished,” Mr. Dobson told the Associated Press, referring to the 25-mile stretch of the river that carried the red waste from Kolontar into the Raba River, which flows into the Danube.

He said emergency crews were pouring plaster and acetic acid — vinegar — into the Raba-Danube meeting point to lower the slurry’s pH value.

“The main effort is now being concentrated on the Raba and the Danube,” he said. “That’s what has to be saved.”

Mr. Dobson said the lack of immediate environmental damage to the Danube or Raba was “by no means a victory declaration,” cautioning that dead fish still could turn up shortly.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, stopping at dawn in Kolontar, described the reservoir break as a disaster unprecedented in Hungary.

“If this had happened at night, then everyone here would have died,” the MTI news agency quoted him as telling villagers.

Mr. Orban suggested someone was clearly to blame, angrily exclaiming, “This is so irresponsible that it is impossible to find words!”

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