Hungarian court acquits 15 charged in 2010 sludge flood case

BUDAPEST, Hungary – A Hungarian court on Thursday acquitted 15 employees of a company whose burst reservoir in 2010 flooded three towns with toxic red sludge, killing 10 people.

A court in the city of Veszprem said the spill, Hungary’s worst environmental disaster, had been caused by the collapse of a reservoir wall due to “loss of stability originating in the subsoil,” Hungarian state media reported.

The court said that couldn’t have been foreseen by the executives or employees of MAL, the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade company.

The spilled sludge was a highly caustic waste product of aluminum production. More than 1 million cubic meters (35.3 million cubic feet) of the material poured out of the huge reservoir in minutes, flooding the western Hungarian villages of Kolontar, Devecser and Somlovasarhely. The sludge even reached the Danube River through tributaries, but was sufficiently diluted by then to avoid causing major damage.

Hundreds of people were evacuated. The houses most affected by the sludge flood were later demolished and entire neighbourhoods were relocated and rebuilt.

The verdict cleared the accused of all criminal charges, including reckless public endangerment and violating waste management regulations, but the judge said it wouldn’t affect lawsuits filed against MAL.

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

“There is still no one responsible for the 2010 sludge flood,” Greenpeace said in a statement. “However, 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.

The governing Fidesz party said the court’s decision was “appalling” and said that while it respected the court’s independence, it wanted prosecutors to appeal the verdict. Opposition parties also criticized the ruling.