Hungary dam nearly ready, govt to control spill firm

Last Updated: Tuesday, October 12, 2010 - 16:39

Budapest: An emergency dam being built to prevent a second spill of toxic industrial waste in western Hungary is nearly ready, authorities said on Tuesday, and the state prepared to take over the aluminium firm responsible.

Parliament approved legislation late on Monday allowing a state takeover of MAL Zrt, whose giant alumina sludge reservoir burst last Monday, flooding villages and farmland, killing eight people and injuring more than 120.

Only presidential approval is needed for the legislation to take effect. "We hope that this law will take effect as soon as this week," government spokeswoman Anna Nagy told private broadcaster TV2 in an interview.

"This is important for a variety of reasons. There has been much discussion about whether the plant can be restarted. This is about the jobs of thousands of people, 4,000-6,000 jobs directly and a lot more indirectly."

The alumina factory warned on Sunday that it could go out of business in days if it were not allowed to resume production.

Crews in the village of Kolontar have nearly completed a 600-meter-long emergency dam crossing the village to protect the area from a second waste spill.

One million cubic meters of toxic red mud burst out of MAL`s sludge reservoir last Monday, flooding three villages and fouling rivers including a tributary of the Danube.

The government has put Gyorgy Bakondi, head of the National Disaster Unit, in charge of MAL with the task of creating transparency in its finances and drawing up a plan on how the plant, a key employer in the region, can function safely.

"The disaster commissioner will have a team charged with safely restarting the company, preventing the siphoning off of assets and making sufficient funds available for damage compensation," the prime minister`s spokesman Peter Szijjarto told public television m1.

"Serious matter"

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told a conference at Pecs University in southern Hungary on Tuesday the sludge spill was a "very serious matter," and said he would discuss it at a working meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Kolontar was evacuated on Saturday after cracks appeared in the northern wall of the burst reservoir. Authorities say 500,000 cubic meters of caustic sludge could escape the reservoir if the wall were to fail.

"The dam is being built continuously," Gyorgyi Tottos, spokeswoman for disaster crews on the scene, said. "The system is essentially complete, we just need to strengthen it further with a layer of dolomite."

"It could already protect the village in its current form should any deterioration in the wall occur," she said, adding that checks showed no new weakening of the reservoir wall.

But the nearby town of Devecser, home to 5,400 people, remains on evacuation alert and Kolontar residents are unlikely to be allowed back into their homes before Friday, she added.

Orban told Parliament on Monday that damages must be paid to those affected by the spill, jobs at the plant saved, those responsible held accountable and further risks at the company`s sites identified. Orban blamed "human negligence" for Hungary`s worst ecological disaster.

Zoltan Bakonyi, the head of MAL Zrt, remained in police custody pending a court decision on his arrest. The decision could be made by Wednesday, police said.

"The man was interrogated as suspect yesterday afternoon, in connection with the sludge catastrophe, for having caused public danger resulting in the death of several persons and for having damaged the environment," police said in a statement.

"B Zoltan made a confession, but he complained both of the custody and the suspicions," it said.

Bureau Report



First Published: Tuesday, October 12, 2010 - 16:39

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