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Hungary court acquits suspects in 2010 toxic flood, victims outraged

An elderly man tries to clean up his house in Devecser, Hungary after a major toxic spill in 2010 - REUTERS

An elderly man tries to clean up his house in Devecser, Hungary after a major toxic spill in 2010 - REUTERS

29/01/2016 18:30

(Vatican Radio)  Victims of Hungary’s worst-ever toxic spill, which killed 10 people and injured more than 150 people in 2010, have voiced outrage after the boss of the aluminium plant that caused the disaster and 14 employees were cleared of any wrongdoing. The Hungarian court's ruling came as a major setback for prosecutors who had demanded prison sentences for all fifteen suspects on trial over one of Europe's worst disaster in decades.

Listen to Stefan Bos' report:

On October 4, 2010, more than one million cubic meters of toxic sludge, a waste product of aluminum production, poured out of a huge reservoir in minutes. It flooded the western Hungarian towns of Kolontar, Devecser and Somlovasarhely like a tsunami, killing 10 people and injuring more 150 others.

The sludge turned some 1,000 hectares of land into a Martian landscape. It even reached the Danube River through tributaries, potentially threatening drinking water supplies of millions of people. However experts said it was sufficiently diluted by then to avoid causing major damage.

Yet the court in the western city of Veszprem acquitted Zoltán Bakonyi, the former director of the MAL, the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade company that caused the disaster. He and all other 14 employees on trial were acquitted of charges of negligence, waste management violations and damages to the environment.

Judge 'objective'

Chief judge Györgyi Szabó said that "from an objective point of view the suspects could not have known that the tragedy could happen." She said it is crucial to make a distinction between objective and subjective responsibility.

The verdict sparked strong reactions from survivors of the tragedy in the packed courtroom in Veszprem. One man was seen shouting "Outrageous verdict! We will protest!" before being escorted out by a security guard.

Environmental groups and political parties said they were also dismayed by the verdict.

Greenpeace said in a statement that there is still no one responsible for the 2010 sludge flood," while in its words "it is obvious that human negligence led to the catastrophe" both on the part of MAL and the authorities in charge of permitting and overseeing the company's activities.

Government angry

The governing Fidesz party said the court's decision was "appalling" and added that that while it respected the court's independence, it wanted prosecutors to appeal the verdict. Prosecutors said they would do so.

Opposition parties also criticized the ruling.

Authorities imposed a fine of nearly $500 million fine on MAL in 2011 and moved to nationalise the plant. Last February, Budapest set up a compensation fund for the victims, with many claims still outstanding.

Yet, to critics the political outrage seems somewhat hypocritical.

In a National Profile on Chemical Safety in Hungary, discovered by Vatican Radio at the time experts and advisers to the government already warned in the late 1990s that “the risk of serious chemical accidents occurring was significant.”

29/01/2016 18:30