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No charges for Hungary sludge spill plant boss

An aerial view of Kolontar village covered by toxic red mud, southwest of Budapest, Hungary, Tuesday after the dyke of a reservoir containing red mud of an alumina plant in nearby Ajka broke eight days earlier.
An aerial view of Kolontar village covered by toxic red mud, southwest of Budapest, Hungary, Tuesday after the dyke of a reservoir containing red mud of an alumina plant in nearby Ajka broke eight days earlier.Sandor H. Szabo / AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

The head of the company linked to Hungary's devastating red sludge spill was released from custody Wednesday after a judge ruled against charging him, the man's lawyer said.

The news of Zoltan Bakonyi's release came as Hungary officials announced that the alumina plant will restart production by Friday. T he plant will stay under state control for up to two years, Disaster Commissioner Gyorgy Bakondi said.

Some 184 million gallons of caustic sludge and water burst from a storage pool of the metals plant run by Bakonyi Oct. 4, inundating three west Hungarian villages and spilling into the Danube.

The spill at the plant, owned by firm MAL Zrt, killed nine people, injured more than 120 and polluted a tributary of the Danube. The National Disaster Management Directorate said Wednesday that the death toll rose to nine after an elderly man died overnight. Around 50 people are still hospitalized.

The court issued the ruling in Zoltan Bakonyi's case on Thursday. It had convened to review possible charges of negligence based on suspicions Bakonyi did not sufficiently prepare emergency warning and rescue plans in case of accidents like the sludge spill.

Chairman: 'We are not responsible'
Meanwhile, Lajos Tolnay, MAL's chairman, told a Hungarian publication that even though the company will cooperate with an inquiry into what caused the spill, it does not claim responsibility for the disaster.

"The company must pay if it caused the damages itself," Tolnay said, according to an advance copy of an interview with him in the weekly Figyelo to be published Thursday.

"We feel that we are not responsible because our view is that fundamentally it was an unavoidable external force, that is, the development of natural conditions, that caused the catastrophe."

"My colleagues have done everything according to the rules," he added. He said MAL's third-party liability insurance was worth 20 million forints ($102,200) — a fraction of the likely total cost of the disaster.

Bakondi said the law requires those responsible for the disaster to pay for the cleanup. Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited the area around the plant and has blamed "human negligence" for the spill, Hungary's worst ecological disaster.

Hungarian police secured the firm's premises Tuesday and took over MAL's information systems after parliament rushed through emergency legislation allowing the center-right government to take control of the company and its assets.

'Preliminary permission' to restart operations
But the plant is poised to resume operations by Thursday or Friday.

"We gave a preliminary permission to reheat the power plant (serving the factory)," Bakondi told a news conference. "Letting it cool off too much would have caused damages worth billions of forints."

The firm will remain under state control while there still is an emergency on the ground and during relief efforts, he added.

"The law is clear on that," he said. "The firm can be under state control for a maximum of two years."

Authorities said that cracks in the walls of a broken reservoir that released the deluge have not grown any wider, and Devecser Mayor Tamas Toldi said he hopes the emergency alert can be called off once a protective wall in neighboring Kolontar is completed.

Crews in the evacuated village of Kolontar, nearest to the failed reservoir, have nearly finished an emergency dam that's nearly 2,000 feet long, which crosses the village to protect the area from a potential second waste overflow.

Kolontar was evacuated Saturday after cracks appeared in the northern wall of the reservoir which could let out more caustic sludge if the wall fails again.