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

Court acquits all defendants

Sajtóközlemény - január 28, 2016
Budapest, 28 January 2016 – 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):

Kategóriák