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Aquatic life threatened by Hungary sludge

Blood-red sludge reached the main branch of the Danube at around midday (1000 GMT), after wiping out all life in the smaller Marcal tributary, said Tibor Dobson, the regional chief of Hungary’s disaster relief services.

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“I can confirm that we have seen sporadic losses of fish in the main branch of the Danube,” Dobson said.

“The fish have been sighted at the confluence of the Raba with the Danube,” where water samples had shown a pH value of 9.1, he said.

“In order to save the river’s ecosystem, the pH level must be brought down below 8,” Dobson said.

Water alkalinity is a measure of river contamination and on a scale of 1-14, pH values of 1-6 are acid, between 6 and 8 are neutral, and readings of 8-14 are alkaline.

Dobson said that pH values of 9.6 had been measured in the Raba, a tributary of the Danube, up from earlier in the day, and 9.4 in the Danube’s Mosoni branch.

In the village of Gyirmot, where the Marcal flows into the Raba, volunteers collected bucketfuls of dead fish from the stinking water, which was covered in a slimy film of grey bubbles caused by the chemical gyspum, which was pumped in in to reduce alkalinity.

The toxic spill poured from a reservoir at an aluminium plant in Ajka, 160 kilometres (100 miles) west of Budapest, which burst on Monday, sending 1.1 million cubic metres (38.8 million cubic feet) of red sludge into surrounding villages.

Four people died in one of the villages, Kolontar, from where the tiny Torna stream flows into the Marcal.

The Marcal is a tributary of the Raba, which in turn flows into the Danube, that runs from Hungary through Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine before reaching the Black Sea.

Serbia, Croatia and Romania said they were stepping up monitoring of the river given the risk of drinking water contamination in towns along the river.

Adrian Draghici, head of the water management authority in Mehedinti county, 400 kilometres west of Bucharest, said the pollution wave could reach Romania Saturday.

But a Hungarian water official downplayed the long-term impact of the pollution on the Danube, saying it would only affect a limited part of the waterway.

“Alkaline levels show that the pollution will probably not have an effect on the Danube’s ecosystem below Komarom,” Emil Janak, the director of the regional water authority, was quoted as saying by MTI news agency.

The city of Komarom is 20 kilometres downstream of the point where the Raba flows into the Danube, and 80 kilometres upsteam of Budapest.

Environmentalists have expressed alarm about the possible long-term effects of the disaster.

“The heavy metals are the danger in the long run,” Gabor Figeczky, acting head of nature protection body the WWF in Hungary, told AFP.

Figeczky said the Marcal’s ecosystem could take between three and five years to recover.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban earlier visited Kolontar, and said it may have to rebuilt elsewhere because the ground was uninhabitable.

He insisted Hungary did not need financial help, but would welcome expertise to help clean up the spill.

In Brussels, a European Commission spokesman said the EU was prepared to assist Hungary or any other state affected but had not yet received any request for help.

MAL Hungarian Aluminium Production and Trade Company, the company at the centre of the disaster, plans to pay out “rapid aid” of 360 euros (504 dollars) to each family, or 110,000 euros in total, according to the mayor of one of the hardest-hit villages.

MAL has come under fierce criticism, with officials suggesting too much of the caustic red sludge was contained in the reservoir, but the company insists it has done nothing wrong.

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