Hungary launches criminal investigation into toxic sludge disaster

Hungary’s top investigative agency opened a criminal investigation into the toxic sludge flood Wednesday while the European Union and environmental groups warned the disaster could have long-term consequences for countries along the Danube River.

A villager is reflected in a flood of toxic mud

A villager is reflected in a flood of toxic mud

KOLONTAR, Hungary — Hungary’s top investigative agency opened a criminal investigation into the toxic sludge flood Wednesday while the European Union and environmental groups warned the disaster could have long-term consequences for countries along the Danube River.

Hundreds of people had to be evacuated after a gigantic sludge reservoir burst Monday at a metals plant in Ajka, a town 160 kilometres southwest of Budapest, the capital. The torrent inundated homes, swept cars off roads, damaged bridges and disgorging an estimated one million cubic metres of toxic waste onto several nearby towns.

At least four people have been killed, three are still missing and 120 have been injured.

Police spokeswoman Monika Benyi told The Associated Press that the decision by National Police Chief Jozsef Hatala to take over the probe reflected the importance and the complexity of the sludge disaster.

Benyi said a criminal case had been opened into possible on-the-job carelessness.

The huge reservoir was no longer leaking Wednesday but a triple-tiered protective wall was being built around the reservoir’s damaged area. Interior Minister Sandor Pinter said guards have been posted at the site ready to give early warning in case of any new emergency.

Emergency workers and construction crews in hazmat gear were sweeping through the hardest-hit Hungarian towns Wednesday, straining to clear roads and homes coated by thick red sludge and caustic muddy water.

In Brussels, the European Union said it feared the toxic flood could turn into an ecological disaster for half a dozen European nations — those downriver from Hungary along the mighty Danube — and said it stood ready to offer help.

“This is a serious environmental problem,” EU spokesman Joe Hennon told The Associated Press. “We are concerned, not just for the environment in Hungary, but this could potentially cross borders.”

In Kolontar, the town nearest to the plant, a military construction crew assembled a pontoon bridge across a toxic stream so residents could briefly return to their homes and rescue belongings.