- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 13, 2010

VESZPREM, Hungary (AP) — A judge on Wednesday dismissed prosecution demands that the head of a metals company linked to Hungary’s devastating red-sludge spill be charged with negligence, and he has been released from police custody, his lawyer said.

Appearing after the closed court hearing reviewing the case, Zoltani Bakonyi’s lawyer, Janos Banati, said the judge ruled in his favor after finding that prosecutors couldn’t substantiate their argument that Mr. Bakonyi did not sufficiently prepare emergency warning and rescue plans in case of accidents such as the sludge spill.

Mr. Banati said prosecutors were preparing an appeal.

The decision was sure to embitter hundreds of villagers who blame the management of MAL Rt. for the deaths of nine people, the hundreds of homes left uninhabitable and the poisoning of local waterways. Some 184 million gallons of caustic sludge and water burst from a storage pool of a metals plant Oct. 4, inundating three western Hungarian towns and spilling into the Danube River.

“Life won’t be returning to normal for a very very long time,” said Devecser Mayor Tamas Toldi, whose town was one those swamped by the toxic slurry.

In a bit of good news, authorities said that cracks in the wall of the broken reservoir appear not to have grown wider, calming some fears that further collapse would release a second flood of sludge.

One village remained evacuated Wednesday, and residents in Devecser were ready to leave on short notice. But Mr. Toldi said he hoped the state of alert could be called off later in the day, once a protective wall in neighboring Kolontar meant to contain any new spill was completed.

The National Disaster Management Directorate, meanwhile, said that the death toll had risen to nine after an elderly man died overnight. Of the more than 100 hurt by the caustic slurry, about 50 people remained hospitalized.

Mr. Banati said Wednesday’s ruling reflected defense arguments that the company had emergency plans that had been approved by government authorities and that did not need updating when Mr. Bakonyi took over two years ago. He also said he knew of no incriminating testimony against Mr. Bakonyi from employees of his firm.

Mr. Bakonyi is the managing director of MAL Rt., or the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Co., which owned the reservoir, part of the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant in Ajka, 100 miles southwest of Budapest.

The red sludge that spilled after a part of the reservoir wall partially collapsed is a highly caustic byproduct of the production of alumina, which is used to make aluminum.

The government took over the company on Tuesday and said the Ajka subsidiary of MAL could restart production by the end of the week under its supervision.

While some local waterways were declared dead in the wake of the spill, the Danube appeared to be suffering little immediate ecological damage because of its massive volume.

Associated Press writer George Jahn contributed to this report from Vienna, Austria.


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