A toxic sludge spill on Tuesday 05 October has devastated part of Hungary, with the scale of the damage increasing every hour. Towns and villages have been abandoned, and a state of emergency has been declared.
Four people have died and more than 120 are injured or missing. Seven villages have been covered in the dark red mud-like sludge, which rose as high as two metres in some areas.
The spill occurred at the Ajkai Timfoldgyar Zrt alumina plant near the village of Kolontar. Early indications of the cause of the spill suggest a reservoir used to store toxic waste at the plant had been filled to more than four times its recommended capacity of 200,000 cubic metres. The walls subsequently broke, sending the sludge pouring out. However, a further investigation into the catastrophe is still ongoing.
Up to 700,000 cubic metres of the sludge has surged across countryside and residential areas alike, with the clean-up operation likely to take more than a year.
The main composite of the toxic waste is iron oxide, accounting for up to 45%. This is responsible for its dark red appearance but it has also been a major cause for concern. As the sludge has several other additional metal oxides present it could change the alkali level of nearby rivers from the neutral PH7 to the hazardous PH9. The chemical waste can cause severe burns on the skin and, if taken into the body of any animal including humans and fish, potentially fatal damage to the internal organs.
Clay has been dumped into many rivers around the affected areas to neutralise the toxic waste, but early reports indicate that nearby rivers such as the Danube have already been contaminated to an ecologically disastrous level.