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Environment

Hungary awaits EU toxic cleanup experts as spill death toll rises

Hungary is awaiting the arrival of a team of EU pollution cleanup experts as the death toll from Monday's toxic spill reaches seven. Fears for the Danube River have eased since the accident, with polution levels down.

Toxic chemicals spill into River Danube

The red sludge wiped out villages and crops

Fears that the Danube River, the second longest in Europe, could become contaminated after a toxic sludge spill have eased after Hungarian authorities claimed that pollution levels in the river have dropped since Thursday.

Tibor Dobson, the regional chief of Hungary's disaster relief services, said fresh data showed acidity levels - or pH - of around 8.2 in the Danube, which could be considered "normal," down from a level of around 9 when the sludge reached the river on Thursday.

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

Further upstream at the confluence of the Raba and the Danube, which is closer to the site of the disaster, pH levels showed a reading of 9 and there were also still sporadic sightings of dead fish, officials said.

Environmental group Greenpeace said in a statement on Friday that levels of arsenic and mercury detected in samples of the red sludge taken on Tuesday were still twice that normally found in so-called red mud.

The death toll following Monday's toxic spill rose to seven late Friday after a body was found in a sludge-covered area, while another man died in hospital of injuries sustained in the spill.

More than 150 others were injured after the reservoir burst its banks at a rural alumina plant sending around 700,000 cubic meters (24,720,000 cubic feet) of sludge streaming through nearby villages.

The pollution already wiped out all life in the smaller Marcal tributary and there were fears it could spread down the Danube to Hungary's southern neighbors.

EU answers call for help

An aerial view of streets covered with red mud

Many of the areas hit by the spill will be uninhabitable, officials say

On Friday, Hungary asked the European Commission to contribute at least three experts under the bloc's joint civil protection assistance measures to aid authorities with the cleanup efforts.

According to a statement on the European Union’s website, several EU countries were forthcoming with offers to send disaster management experts. It said Hungary was awaiting the arrival on Saturday morning of a liaison officer from the Monitoring and Information Center of the European Commission who would be responsible for coordinating the experts once they were on the ground in the contaminated areas.

Despite the call for expertise, Prime Minister Viktor Orban earlier had insisted that the EU member country does not need financial assistance in removing the red slurry containing poisonous heavy metals from villages, fields and rivers.

Orban conceded that, in some places, such as the hard-hit village of Kolontar, there was little point in removing rubble left behind by the spill as habitation of the areas would no longer be possible.

Author: Darren Mara (AFP/AP/dpa)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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