Engineers put the finishes touches on Monday to a new dam around a ruptured reservoir to prevent a new wave of toxic sludge from swamping already devastated villages in the west of Hungary.
There is still no estimate of the total cost of the damage caused by the spill, which officials describe as the worst-ever in the country and an “ecological catastrophe”. But a top government official warned the reservoir’s owners could face fines of up to 73 million euros (102 million dollars).
“The new dam is 70 percent completed” and should be finished on Monday evening, the head of the disaster relief services, Tibor Dobson, told AFP.
Hundreds of volunteers, disaster relief teams and engineers have been racing against time since Saturday to erect a new dam around a reservoir of chemical residue, which authorities feared could crumble if rain arrives as forecast later this week.
The containing walls of the reservoir in Ajka, 160 kilometres (100 miles) west of Budapest, already broke a week ago, sending a tidal wave of toxic sludge through the surrounding villages,
It killed at least seven people, injured 150 more and has polluted an area of 40 square kilometres (15.4 square miles), as well tributaries of the Danube.
Dead fish have been sighted as far as Tahi, which is around 40 kilometres north of Budapest, as well as closer to the capital itself. But disaster relief officials argue the fish have probably been washed along the river and are not a sign that the pollution is continuing to spread.
Indeed, alkaline levels — a sign of water contamination — much closer to site of the accident are still falling.
Kolontar was the village worst hit by the disaster and its entire population of around 800 people have been forced to evacuate while the threat of a new spill remains.
They will have to wait for construction to be completed and the authorities to give the green light before they can return.
“Construction work is going ahead. There were no unforeseen hiccups overnight,” Dobson said.
The new dyke measures 30 metres (98 feet) wide, four metres high and will be around 1,500 metres in length when completed.
According to the latest estimates, 600,000-700,000 cubic metres (21-24 million cubic feet) of toxic sludge spilled from the reservoir last Monday and 2.5 million tonnes are still contained inside it.
MAL Hungarian Aluminium Production and Trade Company, which owns the reservoir, could face damage claims of up to 73 million euros, environment state secretary, Zoltan Illes, estimated.
“We still don’t know for now whether the company overloaded the reservoirs or not. But if that is the case, it’s illegal storage of waste and that constitutes a crime,” he told journalists during a visit to Ajka.
But the government was of the belief that MAL and its directors should bear the financial responsibility for the disaster, he said.
“The costs of the damage done to the water alone will probably amount to 10.2 billion forint and the cost to the environment a further 8.0-12.0 billion forint,” the state secretary estimated.
Around 20 billion forint is equivalent to some 73 million euros.
The police investigation into the disaster is still under way, but critics allege too much of the caustic red sludge was contained in the reservoir.
The company’s three owners are among Hungary’s 100 richest people, with personal fortunes of between 61 million and 85 million euros.
MAL, which was set up in 1995, posted annual revenues of 157 million euros and a profit of 715,000 euros in 2008.