VESZPREM, Hungary (Reuters) - The alumina plant that flooded parts of Hungary with toxic sludge will restart production by Friday and will stay under state control for up to two years, the disaster commissioner said on Wednesday.
The spill of industrial waste last week at the plant, owned by firm MAL Zrt, killed nine people and injured more than 120, polluted a tributary of the Danube and spread heavy metals into the soil that could damage farmland.
Environmental group Greenpeace also said air pollutants released by the spill could pose a risk to people’s health, although the government said they were not harmful.
Commissioner Gyorgy Bakondi told a news conference the plant, whose owners say the spill was triggered by natural causes, would restart production on Thursday or Friday.
“We gave a preliminary permission to reheat the power plant (serving the factory),” Bakondi said. “Letting it cool off too much would have caused damages worth billions of forints.”
The firm — the area’s biggest employer, with 1,100 workers — will remain under state control for up to two years during the relief efforts, which could cost tens of millions of dollars, he added.
The Hungarian Academy of Science (HAS), a state institution, said a survey of soil samples taken in Kolontar and the nearby town of Devecser on October 8 showed heavy metals in the red mud formed only a thin layer and posed no threat to water reserves.
It added, however, that the 1,000 hectares affected may not be able to be farmed, adding that land samples taken in the vicinity of the failed dam showed high arsenic levels.
Environmental group Greenpeace said high levels of nickel and cadmium metals had been found in land samples taken near the plant. There was no immediate comment from officials.
Greenpeace also measured air pollutants on Tuesday, and said on its website the concentration of atmospheric fine dust particles was up to six times higher than safe levels.
“Those in the area are at risk of very grave health consequences without protective equipment,” Greenpeace said.
Greenpeace added that it expected the precise composition of the dust from the labs of the University of Vienna by Thursday.
“Inhaled, the toxic dust can eat away the upper respiratory tract, cause various irritations, asthma, chronic inflammations, and cancerous illnesses,” Greenpeace said.
The government said in a release that its own measurements proved the dust was not harmful.
“The concentration of airborne dust does not exceed the maximum safety level,” the government said on Wednesday on its website dedicated to the sludge spill.
“The authorities consider the measurements conducted by various civil organizations with non-standardized methods to be invalid,” it said.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited the area around the plant on Wednesday. He has blamed “human negligence” for Hungary’s worst ecological disaster in which about 1 million cubic meters of the sludge leaked out of the plant’s reservoir.
Disaster Commissioner Bakondi said the law required those responsible for the disaster to pay for the cleanup.
Lajos Tolnay, MAL’s chairman, said the company would cooperate with an inquiry into what caused the spill. He blamed natural causes, according to an advance copy of an interview with him in the weekly Figyelo to be published on Thursday.
“The company must pay if it caused the damages itself,” Tolnay was quoted as saying. “We feel that we are not responsible because our view is that fundamentally it was an unavoidable external force, that is, the development of natural conditions, that caused the catastrophe.”
“My colleagues have done everything according to the rules,” he added. He said MAL’s third-party liability insurance was worth 20 million forints ($102,200) — a fraction of the likely total cost of the disaster.
Hungarian police took over MAL’s information systems after parliament rushed through emergency legislation allowing the government to take control of the company and its assets.
MAL’s top executive, Zoltan Bakonyi, was released from police custody on Wednesday, his attorney said, after the court found the case against him insufficient to keep him behind bars.
Police said on Tuesday after detaining Bakonyi that he had had no contingency measures should the reservoir wall fail.
The fear of further disaster still looms large for people living close to the plant, even as a 600-meter-long emergency dam to prevent potential further spills from reaching the village were nearing completion.
Bakondi said the dam would be finished by Friday and villagers could move back into their homes over the weekend.
Kolontar was evacuated on Saturday after cracks appeared in the northern wall of the reservoir which could let out a further 500,000 cubic meters of caustic sludge if the wall failed again.
The latest checks showed no further deterioration, Gyorgyi Tottos, a spokeswoman for disaster crews, told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Sandor Peto and Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Alison Williams