MAC: Mines and Communities

Hungary for justice: Court acquits those responsible for toxic spill

Published by MAC on 2016-01-31
Source: Statement, Reuters (2016-01-28)

Remember Hungary's "red mud disaster" in 2010?

You surely would if you'd been living there at the time, seeRed Mud Disaster: Hungary aims to take-over culprit company

The court's argument for acquitting those responsible for the fatal disaster appears to be that they were justifiably unaware it might happen,
since the authorities responsible for checking the dam had signed it off as okay.

This smacks of the excuses made by those who operated the Samarco tailings dams in Brazil. See: Samardo tsunami: "there may never be an effective remedy for victims" 

The better news is that the state prosecutor is apparently appealing the decision.

Hungary court acquits leaders of firm behind toxic spill

Reuters

28 January 2016

KOLONTAR, Hungary - Fifteen people tried in connection with a toxic spill from an alumina reservoir in western Hungary that killed 10 people in 2010 were acquitted on Thursday, an outcome a local mayor said would only serve to further traumatize and anger residents.

The spill was one of Hungary's worst environmental disasters. Toxic red mud flowing from the reservoir destroyed hundreds of homes across three towns, covered the countryside and seeped into rivers as far downstream as the Danube.

It took years to clean up at a cost of about 40 billion forints ($140 million).

MAL Corp, the aluminum smelting company that owned the faulty alumina reservoir was subsequently taken over by the government, which declared it responsible for the incident and began to close it down. It is still under liquidation.

But in a first instance ruling, the court in the western town of Veszprem said executives and top employees of MAL had not been criminally negligent, nor had they committed other crimes they were charged with during the 40-month legal procedure.

"The defendants had no realistic and objective opportunity to discover the hazards that had formed," the court said in a statement, adding that relevant authorities had signed off on the reservoir's blueprints and operation, and conducted regular checks.

"The authorities had uncovered no shortfalls and prescribed no additional checks. The catastrophe had no predictable, visible, recognizable prior sign," the court said.

It was not immediately clear whether prosecutors would appeal the verdict.

Earlier, a local far right politician, Lajos Kepli, protested in the court, holding up a sign showing an image of the devastation. It read: "Is this the worth of ten lives?" He was led out by police, a Reuters witness said.

Karoly Tili, the mayor of nearby Kolontar, the first village that was struck, said locals, many of whom had yet to recover from the disaster, would be devastated.

"I am disappointed," he said by telephone. "I thought they would set an example in the case. The prosecution needs to appeal this, or people here will be very angry."

Emotions in Kolontar were running high ahead of the trial. On Wednesday, Jozsef Holczer, 67, whose house was destroyed, cried as he recalled the tragedy which swept away half the buildings in the village.

"I used to come here to sit with my friend Erno Stumpf under a big walnut tree that stood here," Holczer said. "We would hide from the sun in summers, take shelter from the snow in winters, sit around and drink and talk."

Stumpf and his sister died trying to save their pigs from the mud, the old man said.

(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Catherine Evans)


Still no one held responsible for 2010 red sludge disaster in Hungary

Court acquits all defendants

Greenpeace press release 

28 January 2016

Budapest – Greenpeace sadly noted today that there is still no one who has been held responsible for the 2010 red sludge disaster in Hungary. The green organisation says it is obvious that human failures had led to the catastrophe which has taken death toll of 10. Both the operating company MAL and the authorities permitting and controlling its activities clearly made errors, or did not perform the checks appropriately. This whole case reveals system-wide errors. To avoid accidents like this in the future, new legislation is required to guarantee real environmental responsibilities, whilst the authorities have to be strengthened, and their independence ensured. [1]

In the first instance judgement of Veszprém Regional Court, all defendants have been acquitted in the court case of the 2010 red sludge catastrophe at the village of Kolontár. The top management and other employees of MAL (the company operating the red sludge reservoir), a total of 15 people, had been accused of negligence causing danger to public and causing death, and of other offences. The court continues the announcement of the detailed grounds for the judgement on 29 January 2016.

On 4 October 2010, a corner of the dam of MAL’s red sludge reservoir collapsed. More than 1 million cubic metres of liquid waste (highly alkaline, also containing toxic metals) had been released, flooding nearby towns and villages. A number of reports have been published in the aftermath [2], and several institutions – including the European Commission – have taken a position concerning the accident.

Deficiencies in the work of the authorities obviously contributed to the catastrophe. It was later shown that the dam was sagging at the point of the rupture for years before. [3] However, from 2002 until the 2010 accident, not a single authority (the territorially competent environmental or mining inspectorate, or notary) performed a check on reservoir no. 10’s stability and statics.

The competent authorities evidently breached the regulations in the 10 years before the accident. [4] Both the facility and the red sludge in the reservoir had been wrongly classified, thus no authority considered itself responsible for checking the reservoir from 2002 onwards. After the catastrophe, the European Commission stated that the Kolontár red sludge should have been classified as dangerous waste – therefore, authorities erroneously permitted MAL’s operation. [5]

The disaster management plan was inadequate too. It calculated with a maximum spill of 400,000 cubic metres. However, in the 2010 catastrophe, about two and half times of this amount spilled. There is a serious question of who and why approved or performed the further use of the overfilled reservoir. In addition, there is an EU regulation for the treatment of red sludge using a so-called dry technology, by which this accident could have also been prevented. However, the environmental authority did not oblige MAL to switch to this technology before the accident.

A reason for the authorities not being fully capable of performing their duties is that they have been gradually weakened ever since 2006. Over the last decade, several national NGOs – Clean Air Action Group, Protect the Future, Greenpeace and others – flagged many times [6] that Hungarian authorities have been weakened to the point that it results in deficiencies in their controlling work, and in loosened permitting practices. Furthermore, there is a current governmental process which terminates the independence of the authorities, causing further concerns.

There is still no legislation in force which could really ensure the “polluter pays” principle. In order to avoid such severe accidents in the future, the government should immediately fill this gap, and strengthen the authorities, whilst also grant their independence of political or other interests.

See also the 2011 Kolontár report: https://secured-static.greenpeace.org/hungary/PageFiles/717689/Kolontar-report.pdf

Notes
[1] (in Hungarian) http://www.greenpeace.org/hungary/hu/sajtokozpont/5-evvel-a-kolontari-vorosiszap-katasztrofa-utan-mi-kell-a-jovbeni-balesetek-elkerulesehez/

[2] https://secured-static.greenpeace.org/hungary/PageFiles/717689/Kolontar-report.pdf

[3] See pages 35 to 53: http://www.icsoba.org/sites/default/files/ctools/newsletter/04%20ICSOBA%20Newsletter%20Jan%202011.pdf

[4] For further details on the deficiencies of the authorities’ work, see (in Hungarian): http://kettosmerce.blog.hu/2012/09/28/vorosiszap_per_hol_az_allami_felelosseg

[5] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getAllAnswers.do?reference=E-2010-011083&language=EN

[6] For instance (in Hungarian):

https://www.levego.hu/hirek/2006/12/a-hatosagok-leepitese-oriasi-felelotlenseg
http://greenfo.hu/hirek/print/2007/05/25/legyengult-hatosagok_1180088768
http://hvg.hu/itthon/20120116_zoldek_allamigazgatas_leepites

 

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