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Hungary: Initiation of Criminal Investigation of Chemical Spill Disaster

(Oct. 12, 2010) On October 6, 2010, police in Hungary launched a criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the massive Ajka chemical spill, in which toxic red sludge from an alumina plant's storage reservoir spread through tributaries and ultimately reached the Danube River. The spill, which occurred on October 4, has resulted in four deaths and 120 injuries, in addition to ecological damage. (Dwyer Arce, Hungary Police Initiate Criminal Investigation into Chemical Spill, PAPER CHASE NEWSBURST (Oct. 7, 2010),
.) Some news reports state that the size of the spill is comparable to the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; Hungarian officials termed the spill an “ecological catastrophe.” (Pablo Gorondi, Toxic Sludge Almost the Size of Gulf Oil Spill, AP (Oct, 8, 2010),
Mark Tran, Hungary Toxic Sludge Spill an 'Ecological Catastrophe' Says Government, THE GUARDIAN (Oct. 5, 2010),

Authorities in other countries have successfully brought criminal negligence charges against some companies for toxic chemical spills in the past, most notably an Indian court's conviction in June 2010, on charges of “death by negligence,” of seven former Union Carbide employees in connection with the 1984 Bhopal toxic gas spill disaster. (Arce, supra.)

The Hungarian government suspended production at the Ajkai Timfoldgyar Zrt alumina plant, owned by MAL Zrt (Magyar Alumínium), and ordered the company to repair the damaged reservoir; the clean-up could take more than a year. (THE GUARDIAN, supra.) If the plant owners are found to have been negligent, under European Union law they could be held liable for the damage, in accordance with the principle of the polluter pays. (Hungary Launches Probe as Red Sludge Spreads, CTV NEWS (Oct. 6, 2010), MAL Zrt contends “that there were no indications of the impending spill and that the chemical waste is not hazardous by EU standards.” (Arce, supra.)