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Sludge spill but 1 of East's ecological horrors

Abandoned mines in Romania leech heavy-metal contaminated waters into rivers. A Hungarian chemical plant produces more than 100,000 tons of environmental toxins a year. Soil in eastern Slovakia is contaminated with cancer-producing PCBs.The flood of toxic sludge in Hungary is but one of the...

Abandoned mines in Romania leech heavy-metal contaminated waters into rivers. A Hungarian chemical plant produces more than 100,000 tons of environmental toxins a year. Soil in eastern Slovakia is contaminated with cancer-producing PCBs.

The flood of toxic sludge in Hungary is but one of the ecological horrors that lurk in eastern Europe 20 years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. While the end of communism came with a widespread cleanup, the massive spill of caustic muck serves as a wakeup call for a region dotted with disasters waiting to happen.

Today, much of Eastern Europe is free of many of its worst environmental sins with the help of a massive infusion of Western funds and the conditions imposed on Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Czech republic in exchange for EU membership.

Still, the sludge flood has focused attention on less visible dangers — the toxic time bombs that survived the cleanup.

The caustic spill — Hungary's worst ecological disaster — has also raised questions about whether investors who took over old Soviet factories from the state 20 years ago are at fault for not spending enough on safety features.

On Monday, police detained the director of the company that owns the metals plant where a reservoir flooded several towns with toxic red sludge. At least seven people died and one is missing following last Monday's red sludge deluge from a 10-hectare storage pool where a byproduct of aluminum production is kept.

Calls for greater cleanup efforts apply not only to Hungary, which considered itself ahead of most of the former Soviet bloc in fixing past ecological harm, but also to neighbors like Serbia that hope to join the 27-nation bloc in the next few years.

Many of the potential ecological catastrophes may be uncharted.

"The scary thing is we didn't know this existed and there could be other ones," says Andreas Bechham, director of the WW Danube-Carpahtian program, alluding to the Hungarian spill. "How many other facilities and sites are there that could be a ticking time bomb?"

In Hungary, environmentalists are warning of other potential red sludge disasters from seven storage ponds about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northwest of Budapest that hold 12 million tons of sludge accumulated since 1945 — more than 10 times the amount that spilled this week.

"If the gates break there, much of Hungary's drinking water would be endangered," says World Wildlife Fund official Martin Geiger.

Other sites — like the Borsodchem plant in northeast Hungary — pose similar risks to ground water, and more. That factory churns out 100,000 tons of the environmental toxin PVC containing dioxin, the same poison released into the air by a factory explosion in Seveso Italy 34 years ago that killed hundreds of animals and turned much of the town into a no-man's land.

Slovakia, Hungary's northern neighbor, has its own toxic problem, among them a huge area in the east of the country still contaminated with PCBs from earlier production of the chemical during communist times.

To the south in Bulgaria, government officials alarmed by the Hungarian spill have ordered safety checks of a dozen waste dams — huge reservoir walls that hold back often heavy metal-laden waste that are prone to leaks or collapse.

In Bulgaria's most serious waste dam accident, walls at a lead and copper processing factory in Zgorigrad broke in 1966, releasing a sludge flood that killed 488 people and left much of the immediate area uninhabitable.

Activists say smaller leaks are not uncommon. Ecologist Daniel Popov said toxic products leaked into the Topolnitsa River in central Bulgaria last spring when sludge spilled from a storage pond containing waste from copper ore, killing the fish in the river.

But the inspections are only for still operational waste dams, prompting criticism from environmental activists.

Of particular concern, says a WWF report, is a still operating dam near the northwestern town of Chiprovtsi in north west Bulgaria because it is directly on the Ogosta River, one of the major Danube tributaries in Bulgaria.

Hungary's sludge ponds are a legacy of the Soviet era, when Moscow designated that country as the main producer of alumina, used in the manufacture of aluminum. But reservoirs full of heavy-metal laced red sludge are also a threat elsewhere.

In Romania, a huge storage pond full of corrosive sludge is part of the landscape of the gritty Danube port of Tulcea. WWF activists say that leaks and airborne pollution from the site is responsible for fish and bird deaths nearby.

The Danube — Europe's second-largest waterway — appears to have escaped immediate harm from the red sludge spilling into it from Hungary. But any spill on the scale of the Hungarian disaster from the Tulcea plant would devastate its delta — a vast stretch of lakes and marshes at the Danube's entry into the Black Sea that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, and hosts over 300 species of birds and 45 freshwater fish species.

Romania's last environmental disaster is only 10 years in the past: a spill of 100,000 tons of cyanide-laced waters from a gold mine reservoir in the northern city of Baia Mare. Memories of that calamity, which led to a massive kill-off of fish in a local river and left dozens who ate contaminated fish hospitalized, have triggered emergency measures for Tulcea and other suspect sites.

Romania's Environment Minister Laszlo Borbely said last week that his country is accelerating clean-up plans for 1,000 contaminated sites.

"We must be very cautious now after what happened here in Baia Mare and now in Hungary," he told reporters at a news conference in the city of Targu Mures on Friday. He said Romania could access up to 100 million euros of EU funds to decontaminate pollution sites.

Some of the communist Eastern Europe's worst environmental horrors were in Romania — among them Copsa Mica, where TV images of black toxic soot drifting from chimneys of a rubber-dye factory onto houses, fields, grazing sheep and townspeople shocked the world in 1989.

International outrage contributed to the plant's closure in 1993. But "historic pollution" with heavy metals from the 40 years that was rubber-dye plant was functioning continues to foul the air. Life expectancy in the area is 9 years lower than the national average of 72.

With the Danube being shared by seven East European nations, it has been the victim of toxic spills even before it was deluged by Hungary's caustic red muck.

Among the worst incidents occurred 11 years ago during NATO's bombing of Serbia, when warplanes targeted a fertilizer and vinyl chloride manufacturing plants and an oil refinery in the town of Pancevo, near Belgrade, releasing a toxic soup of mercury, dioxins, and other cancer-causing compounds into the river.

Foreign cash after the war allowed authorities to contain the land leaks. But sporadic emissions of toxic gases continue to drive air pollution above accepted levels.

Also in Serbia, a vast open pit just 100 meters (yards) from the Sava — a Danube tributary — that contains millions of tons of coal ash from the Nikola Tesla Coal Power Plant in Obrenovac, near Belgrade, is also causing concern.

The air above of city has unhealthy levels of carbon black, or lampblack, for as much as a third of the year. Water sprinklers used to prevent the ash from becoming airborne are of limited effectiveness on windy days.

Croatia lists nine locations at which a dangerous waste has been deposited for decades — and those still need to be cleanedm, says Toni Vidan of the NGO Green Action.

In Vranjic near Split, a factory producing asbestos closed down several years ago but the waste — about 7,000 cubic meters of material mixed with asbestos — hasn't been completely cleaned yet. Two years ago, the presence of asbestos in Vranjic was three times greater than allowed and even today, residents say, cancer-causing asbestos particles fly in the are when the wind blows.


Associated Press writers Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, Karel Janicek in the Czech Republic and Alina Wolfe Murray in Bucharest, Romania, contributed to this report. Jahn reported from Vienna.

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