- Associated Press - Friday, October 8, 2010

KOLONTAR, Hungary (AP) — The mighty Danube was apparently absorbing Hungary’s massive toxic red sludge spill with little immediate harm, officials reported Friday — even though the amount of caustic slurry spewed over the western part of the country was nearly as great as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Revising even higher earlier estimates, government officials said the reservoir break at an alumina plant Monday dumped 600,000 to 700,000 cubic meters (158 million to 184 million gallons) of sludge onto three villages — not much less in a few hours than the 200 million gallons the blown-out BP oil well gushed into the Gulf over several months starting in April.

“The consequences do not seem to be that dramatic,” said Philip Weller, who heads the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube, by telephone from Vienna, when asked about harm to the waterway’s ecosystem up to now.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the threat to the Danube had been eliminated.

“We managed to take control of the situation in time,” the state MTI news agency quoted him as saying.

But the risk of pervasive and lasting environmental damage remained, with laboratory analyses organized by Greenpeace showing high concentrations of toxic substances in samples of the sludge.

Greenpeace told reporters in Vienna Friday that the samples taken a day after the spill showed “surprisingly high” levels of arsenic and mercury. The analysis suggested that roughly 50 tons of arsenic, 300 tons of chrome and half a ton of mercury was set free by the spill, Greenpeace officials said.

Greenpeace officials said the detected arsenic concentration is twice the amount normally found in so-called red mud. Analysis of water in a canal near the spill also found arsenic levels 25 times the limit for drinking water.

With rain giving way to dry, warmer weather over the past two days, the caustic mud is increasingly turning to airborne dust, which can cause respiratory problems, said Hungary’s state secretary for the environment, Zoltan Illes.

“Wind can blow … that heavy metal contamination through the respiratory system,” he said.

Government emergency services officials on Friday urged residents near the toxic flood area to wear face masks.

The warnings conflicted with the view of the prestigious Hungarian Academy of Sciences which said that while the material remained hazardous, its heavy metal concentrations were not considered dangerous for the environment.

“The academy can say whatever it wants,” fumed Barbara Szalai Szita, who lives in Devecser, one of the hardest-hit villages. “All I know is that if I spend 30 minutes outside I get a foul taste in my mouth and my tongue feels strange.”

Officials with Hungary’s national disaster relief service, meanwhile, told The Associated Press that a fifth person — an 81-year-old man — died Friday morning from unspecified injuries sustained in the flooding.

Free access to Kolontar, closest to the leak, was shut off to media Friday, with officials saying the crush of reporters and TV crews was interfering with cleanup work. Media members were being allowed in only three times a day and assigned minders.

The red sludge devastated creeks and rivers near the spill site, and entered the Danube on Thursday, moving downstream Friday toward Hungary’s immediate neighbors, Croatia, Serbia and Romania. Monitors were taking samples every few hours Friday to measure damage from the spill but Europe’s second largest river, appeared to be absorbing the blow due to its huge volume of water.

The pH level of the water where the slurry entered the Danube was 9 — well below the 13.5 measured in local waterways, Hungarian rescue agency spokesman Tibor Dobson told the state MTI news agency on Friday.

Dobson added that such amounts posed no damage to the environment.

A neutral pH level for water is 7, with normal readings ranging from 6.5 to 8.5. Each pH number is 10 times the previous level, so a pH of 13 is 1,000 times more alkaline than a pH of 10.

Emergency crews, meanwhile, drained a second industrial reservoir at the spill site Friday to prevent a new disaster.

Dobson told MTI that 100,000 cubic meters (3.5 million cubic feet) of fluid from a storage pond close to the burst reservoir was being gradually released into a local river already declared dead in the wake of Monday’s environmental catastrophe. Gypsum was being dropped into the Marcal River from helicopters to neutralize the alkaline effect of the fluid, he said.

It is still not known what caused a section of the reservoir to collapse, unleashing a torrent of sludge. Three people are still missing. More than 150 were treated for burns and other injuries, and 10 were still in serious condition.

Crews looking for the missing drained a pond swollen by the muck Friday but no bodies were found.

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Associated Press writers George Jahn, Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna and Alison Mutler in Bucharest contributed to this report.

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