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Parliament nationalises toxic sludge company

Hungary's parliament has passed a bill nationalising aluminium producer MAL, the company responsible for a toxic sludge spill that killed eight people last week.


AFP - Hungary seized control of the company blamed for a deadly mud spill Tuesday as a new dam to prevent a feared second disaster neared completion, allowing villagers to return home by the end of the week.

A day after the managing director of MAL Hungarian Aluminium Production and Trade Company was detained for questioning in the country's worst-ever chemical accident, the government seized control of the company and froze its assets.

A bill nationalising MAL was passed by the parliament, with 336 votes in favour, one against and 13 abstentions, and then signed into law by President Pal Schmitt.

Under the legislation, the government will freeze the assets of MAL and install its own representative or commissioner at the helm, who will then be responsible for resolving the current catastrophe that has left eight people dead, 150 injured and hundreds homeless.

The law says the commissioner -- national disaster chief Gyorgy Bakondi -- will "report directly to Prime Minister (Viktor Orban) and work under him for a period of two years."

Orban's spokesman Peter Szijjarto explained that Bakondi's main tasks would be "to prepare the resumption of operations at the site so as to safeguard jobs; to determine liability; launch the compensation process; and make sure no further accident occurs."

Bakondi, for his part, said he would begin by taking a close look at MAL's financial situation.

He told a news conference in Budapest that "all the offices and sites of MAL are under police guard and we've taken control of their IT systems."

Bakondi estimated production could resume at the plant "at the end of the week."

MAL is a major employer in the region, with a workforce of 1,100.

The company has been accused of overloading a reservoir of toxic residue at its alumina plant in Ajka, 160 kilometres (100 miles) from Budapest.

The reservoir's retaining walls burst a week ago, sending a tidal wave of toxic sludge through surrounding villages and across an area of 40 square kilometres (15.4 square miles) and polluting the Danube and its tributaries.

The ecosystems of two small rivers, the Torna and the Marcal, have been wiped out completely. But alkaline levels -- a measure of water contamination -- in the Danube itself have normalised since the accident.

The villages of Kolontar and Devecser were the hardest hit and at least eight people from Kolontar died in the disaster and 45 people remain hospitalised, two in very serious condition.

The company denies any wrongdoing. But an investigation is underway to determine the exact causes of the spill and on Monday, MAL's managing director Zoltan Bakonyi was taken into custody for questioning.

European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, at a meeting with Prime Minister Orban in Pecs, in the southwest of country, extended the EU's condolences to the victims and their families and to Hungary as a whole.

"I would like to express my sympathy with the Hungarian nation over the recent red sludge spill," he told a joint news conference and praised "the expertise and fast action of the Hungarian authorities".

The EU has already dispatched five experts to help Hungary deal with the sludge, but Barroso promised a sixth would be sent soon.

"The expert knows everything about the sludge's damaging effects and will be in Hungary in the foreseeable future to help recover the hazards," the EU Commission chief said.

An AFP photographer said the EU experts had flown over the disaster-hit area in a helicopter and then taken soil samples to determine the depth of the pollution.

Meanwhile, construction was nearing completion of a second dam to prevent a second spill from occurring in case of anticipated heavy rain later this week.

"The new dyke is practically ready. We just need to reinforce it with stones, because it will have to hold for decades," the head of the regional disaster relief services, Tibor Dobson, said in a radio interview.

The second dam measures 30 metres (98 feet) wide, four metres high and around 1,500 metres in length.

Around 800 villagers of Kolontar were evacuated last Saturday for fear of a second spill. They were informed Tuesday that they would probably be able to return to their homes on Friday at the earliest, Dobson said.

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