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Engineers Sunday rushed to reinforce a shaft through which to hoist 33 men trapped over two months down a mine in Chile, as the men below argued over who should be let up first.

“I would like to illustrate what they are going through today with a conversation we had yesterday,” Health Minister Jaime Manalich told a press conference near the San Jose mine.

“I questioned them and mentioned we were working on an order in which they would be brought out. I said the order would be determined by technical factors.

“And what was their reaction? ‘Mr. Minister, that’s fine but I want to go last please.’ And then another guy said, ‘No, my friend, I said that I was going to be the last one up.’ ‘No, no, really — I want to go last, please,’ another guy started saying.”

By being able to put aside their needs and wanting their colleagues to have a chance at freedom and fresh air first, “they have had a really commendable spirit, of solidarity and commitment to their friends,” Manalich stressed.

As to their health condition, the minister said they were doing well, and were in “very good shape. The people at the bottom of the mine were healthy people the day of the accident.”

In addition “they are mature people and very self-sufficient people, who have been able to face a test the likes of which probably no one has in human history,” Manalich said.

The miners will begin a special liquid diet about 12 hours ahead of the rescue operation expected to start Wednesday.The aim is to reduce any nausea and vomiting during their removal from the depths of the mine, while still keeping up their caloric intake.

Engineers meanwhile were reinforcing the shaft that will be used to finally free the men.

Saturday, rescuers announced they had completed a 622-meter (2,040-foot) deep shaft through to the emergency shelter where the men have survived since the August 5 collapse at the gold and copper mine in northern Chile.

Mining Minister Laurence Golborne told reporters the men could begin the ascent, one by one, on Wednesday. An additional 48 hours are needed to install the metal cage and the complex pulley system for lowering it to the miners and lifting them out.

The first group of miners to exit will be several of the strongest men, followed by a group considered the weakest due to chronic health problems like high blood pressure or lung ailments, and ending with more of the stronger ones, officials said.

If the timetable holds, all the miners could expect to end their ordeal of nearly two and half months by Friday.

They have been trapped deep beneath the desert floor after a partial collapse that blocked the mine exit, surviving longer than anyone has before under similar circumstances.

For weeks the men were feared dead. But on August 22 they attached a note to a drill bit that had broken through to the chamber where they had taken shelter, saying they were all alive, well and awaiting rescue.

Hundreds of journalists and camera crews from around the world have converged on the mine, hoping to capture the first images of the miners at the surface.

Blasts rock Karachi shrine

Posted by arnon_k On October - 8 - 2010 ADD COMMENTS

At least seven people reportedly killed after twin blasts hit Sufi Muslim shrine in southern Pakistani city.

At least seven people have been killed and 60 others injured in two explosions at a busy Sufi Muslim shrine in the Pakistani city of Karachi.

One blast took place at the entrance to the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine in the Clifton district on Thursday and a second occurred inside the compound, sources said.

At least one of the explosions appeared to have been caused by a suspected suicide bomber.

“We have provided the best available security at this shrine,” Zulfiqar Mirza, the interior minister for Sindh province, said.

“Humanly, it is not possible to stop suicide bombers intent on exploding themselves.”

Mirza said that other shrines in the coastal city had been closed to prevent further attacks.

Pools of blood

TV footage showed pools of blood at the scene, while people helped two wounded victims get to an ambulance. Police were cordoning off the area.

Hassam Uddin, a witness, told The Associated Press news agency that two blasts occurred near the main entrance and that he saw 18 to 20 critically wounded people lying on the ground.

Mohibullah Khan, a 38-year-old manual labourer, said he was about to visit the shrine after evening prayers at a nearby mosque when the explosions occurred.

“I heard a huge bang and smoke billowed from there,” he told The Associated Press news agency.

“I ran back toward the mosque and seconds after heard another big explosion. Then I moved to help the wounded and put six or seven of the crying ones in ambulances and police vehicles.”

Thursday evenings are typically the busiest times of the week at such shrines.

Thousands of Sufi Muslims often visit to pray, distribute food to the poor and toss rose petals on the grave of Hazrat Abdullah Shah Ghazi, the great-grandson of Prophet Mohammed, who is credited with bringing Islam to the coastal region in the eighth century.

Thursday’s explosions echoed a twin suicide bombing at a well-known Sufi shrine in the eastern city of Lahore that left 40 people dead earlier this year.

“It has all the hallmarks of a Taliban assault,” Al Jazeera’s Sohail Rahman, reporting from the capital Islamabad, said.

“They feel, and have said many times in the past, that this [Sufi] form of Islam is unIslamic and unacceptable to them.”

There has been no claim of responsibility for the attack.

Yusuf Raza Gilani, the Pakistani prime minister, “strongly condemned” the blasts and ordered an immediate inquiry into the incident.

“It is yet another heinous act of violence reflecting the deranged minds of terrorists,” he said in a statement issued by his office.

Hungary toxic sludge enters Danube

Posted by arnon_k On October - 8 - 2010 2 COMMENTS

Officials seek to allay fears of an environmental disaster as corrosive red mud enters Europe’s second largest river

A toxic red sludge spill from a metals plant that has wiped out all life from one Hungarian river has entered the Danube, one of Europe’s largest waterways.

Dead fish were sighted in the Mosoni-Danube, a southern branch of the river, on Thursday and officials said that the Marcal, a tributary to the waterway, had been devastated by the sludge.

“The entire ecosystem of the Marcal river has been destroyed, because the very high alkaline levels have killed everything,” Tibor Dobson, a spokesman for Hungary’s disaster agency, told the Hungarian news agency MTI.

“All the fish are dead and we haven’t been able to save the vegetation either,” he said.

Residents have also reported local streams to be empty of wildlife.

The corrosive waste, which has high alkaline levels and could contain heavy metals, entered the Danube at around midday local time (10:00 GMT) on Thursday, disaster relief services said.

Pollution fears

However, Emil Janak, the director of the regional water authority, sought to allay fears about the impact the toxic spill would have on the Danube.

“Alkaline levels show that the pollution will probably not have an effect on the Danube’s ecosystem below Komarom,” he was quoted as saying by MTI news agency.

The city of Komarom is 20km downstream of the area where the red sludge is entering the Danube.

“The fish are edible and the waters are quite drinkable,” Janak said.

Countries downstream, including Croatia, Serbia and Romania, are ramping up water quality controls in towns along the river over fears of contaminated supplies.

“If we have the slightest indication that the Danube’s waters are polluted on entering Romanian territory we will immediately impose a full restriction on drinking water supplies from the river,” Adrian Draghici, the head of a regional water management authority in Romania said.

Emergency crews in Hungary were pouring hundreds of tonnes of plaster and acetic acid into the rivers to neutralise the alkalinity on Thursday.

Timea Petroczi, a spokeswoman for the disaster relief services, said that efforts to neutralise the pollution were “already getting good results showing that alkaline levels in the water are falling”.

“We’ve got 500 people involved in the clean-up today. We’re using high-pressure water jets to clean roads and houses.”

Gabor Figeczky, Hungarian branch director of the WWF environmental group, said that it seemed that the efforts would be enough to stop the pollution spreading beyond Hungary’s borders.

“Based on our current estimates, it [pollution] will remain contained in Hungary, and we also trust that it will reach Budapest with acceptable pH values,” he said.

Unprecedented disaster

But fears remain that the sludge could have long-term implications for the 1,775-mile Danube, which flows through Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Moldova before emptying into the Black Sea.

“It is important that we do … everything possible that it would not endanger the Danube,” Janez Potocnik, the EU environment commissioner, told The Associated Press news agency in Brussels, Belgium.

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, has described the spill as a natural disaster unprecedented in Hungary.

“If this had happened at night then everyone here would have died,” he said as he visited on of the three villages devastated as a torrent of toxic mud swept them after a reservoir at the Ajkai Timfoldgyar Zrt metals plant in Ajka burst open on Monday.

“This is so irresponsible that it is impossible to find words!”

At least four people were killed and another 120 injured. Three people are still missing.

Many have suffered from burns and eye irritations caused by corrosive elements in the mud, and hundreds have been evacuated from their homes.

MAL Zrt, the company that owns the metals plant, said the waste was not considered hazardous under EU standards and recommended people clean off the sludge with water.

But Anita McNaught, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Kolontar, one of the villages affected by the spill, said the claim was a bit of a “semantics game”.

“The red sludge is not classified as hazardous waste per se, but the EU said today, that does not mean it is not toxic and does not mean it is not dangerous, because very clearly, it is both,” she said.

The European Union said on Wednesday that it feared the disaster could spread to half a dozen European nations and was ready to offer help.

Criminal investigation

Hungary’s national disasters unit defined the red mud on its website as: “A by-product of alumina production”.

“The thick, highly alkaline substance has a caustic effect on the skin. The sludge contains heavy metals, such as lead, and is slightly radioactive. Inhaling its dust can cause lung cancer.”

Greenpeace was warned that the sludge spill is “one of the top three environmental disasters in Europe in the last 20 or 30 years”, Herwit Schuster, a spokesman for the group, said.

Authorities have ordered a criminal inquiry into the accident.

Jozsef Deak, the company’s operations manager, said it would not shy away from taking responsibility if found guilty.

Sludge-hit Hungarian villagers demand compensation

Posted by arnon_k On October - 7 - 2010 ADD COMMENTS

There was no stopping the avalanche of toxic red sludge: It smashed through the door of Kati Holczer’s house, trapping the mother and her toddler in a sea of caustic waste.

She saved her 3-year-old son, Bence, by placing him on a sofa that was floating in the muck. Then she called her husband Balazs, who was working in Austria, to say goodbye.

“We’re going to die,” she told him, chest-deep in the acrid mud.

After the terror came the pain: Holczer and her two rescuers were among dozens of villagers suffering from deep chemical burns following Monday’s spill.

Their fox terrier Mazli — his name means “Luck” in Hungarian — lay dead in the yard Wednesday, still chained to a stake. Luca, their Labrador, was swept away by the 9-foot-high wave of toxic waste that poured from a breached reservoir at a nearby alumina factory.

The ecological catastrophe that is threatening the Danube River — one of Europe’s main waterways — has left a trail of shattered lives.

On Wednesday, furious villagers, their shoes splattered with the caustic red mud, crowded around an official of the company blamed for the disaster and demanded compensation for destroyed homes, fields and livelihoods. Authorities have ordered a criminal inquiry into the accident, which killed at least four people, injured 120 and left three people missing.

After bursting from the reservoir and flooding three villages Monday, the sludge — a waste product of aluminum production that can contain heavy metals — ended up in the Marcal River, part of the tributary system feeding the Danube, some 45 miles to the north. Hundreds of people were evacuated.

Local streams were swollen Wednesday and tinted ochre by the sludge, and residents said they were empty of fish.

Imre Szakacs, head of the county crisis management committee, told the state-run MTI news agency the lye-like slurry was expected to reach the Danube by the weekend or early next week. Chemical analyses of the sludge were ongoing Wednesday.

However, Kolontar Mayor Karoly Tili told The Associated Press the material was not radioactive as feared. “We can say for sure that according to the measurements there is no radioactivity,” he said.

Still, concerns grew about damage to marine life in the region and beyond. South of Hungary, the 1,775-mile Danube flows through Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Moldova before emptying into the Black Sea.

Hungary’s National Rescue Service said engineers considered diverting the Marcal River into nearby fields but decided not to, fearing the damage would be too great.

Workers were extracting sludge from the river and using plaster and acid to try to neutralize it. Initial measurements showed the sludge was extremely alkaline, with a pH value of 13, the agency said.

The European Union said it feared the toxic flood could turn into an ecological disaster and urged Hungarian authorities to focus on keeping the sludge from reaching the Danube.

“It is important that we do …. everything possible that it would not endanger the Danube,” EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik told the AP in Brussels. “We have to do this very moment everything possible … (to) limit the extent of the damage.”

“This is a serious environmental problem,” EU spokesman Joe Hennon said. “We are concerned, not just for the environment in Hungary, but this could potentially cross borders.”

Greenpeace was more even emphatic.

The sludge spill is “one of the top three environmental disasters in Europe in the last 20 or 30 years,” said Herwit Schuster, a spokesman for Greenpeace International.

Angry villagers gathered outside the mayor’s office in Kolontar late Wednesday had more immediate concerns, as they berated a senior official of MAL Rt., the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company that owns the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant, demanding compensation.

Local officials said 34 homes in the village were unlivable. However, furious residents said the disaster had destroyed the whole community by making their real estate valueless.

“The whole settlement should be bulldozed into the ground,” bellowed Janos Potza, straining to be heard above his neighbors. “There’s no point for anyone to go back home.”

“Those who can, will move out of Kolontar. From now on, this is a dead town,” fumed Beata Gasko Monek.

Visibly shaken, Jozsef Deak, the company’s operations manager, said it would not shy away from taking responsibility if found guilty. He spoke from the passenger seat of a police cruiser, using its speaker system as villagers crowded around.

Two days after the red torrent disgorged an estimated 35 million cubic feet (1 million cubic meters) of toxic waste, it was not known why part of the reservoir collapsed.

National Police Chief Jozsef Hatala was heading the investigation into the spill because of its importance and complexity, police spokeswoman Monika Benyi said. Investigators would look into whether on-the-job carelessness was a factor, she said.

The huge reservoir, more than 1,000 feet (300 meters) long and 1,500 feet (450 meters) wide, was no longer leaking Wednesday and a triple-tiered protective wall was being built around its damaged section. Interior Minister Sandor Pinter said guards have been posted at the site to give an early warning in case of any new emergency.

Greenpeace workers took sludge samples on Tuesday and were having them tested to determine whether they contain heavy metals.

Red sludge is a byproduct of the refining of bauxite into alumina, the basic material for manufacturing aluminum. Treated sludge is often stored in ponds where the water eventually evaporates, leaving behind a dried red clay-like soil.

Hungarian company officials have insisted the sludge is not considered hazardous waste according to EU standards. The company has also rejected criticism that it should have taken more precautions at the reservoir.

In Hungary’s hardest-hit towns, emergency workers and construction crews in respirators and other hazmat gear worked Wednesday to clear roads and homes coated by thick red sludge and caustic muddy water.

In Kolontar, a military construction crew assembled a pontoon bridge across a toxic stream so residents could briefly return to their homes and retrieve some belongings.

In sharp contrast to the emergency workers, villagers salvaged possessions with little more than rubber gloves for protection. Women with pants coated in red mud cleared the muck away from their homes with snow shovels.

The International Commission for the Protection of the Danube, which manages the river and its tributaries, said that sludge spill could trigger long-term damaging effects for both wildlife and humans.

“It is a very serious accident and has potential implications for other countries,” Philip Weller, the group’s executive secretary, said from Brussels.

Weller said the commission’s early warning alarm system was triggered by the spill, which means factories and towns along the Danube may have to shut down their water intake systems.

He said large fish in the Danube could ingest any heavy metals carried downstream, potentially endangering people who eat them.

Alumina plants are scattered around the world, with the 12 largest concentrated in Australia, Brazil and China. The plant in Hungary ranks 53rd in the world in production, according to industry statistics.

The United States has three facilities similar to the one in Hungary. However, regulation and waste storage practices make it unlikely that a similar spill could occur, industry officials and regulators said.

The three U.S. facilities are in Texas and Louisiana, along the Gulf Coast, allowing the plants to take advantage of the hot weather in treating the waste, said Charles Johnson, of the Aluminum Association, a Washington-based lobbying group.