Two recent judgments in Hungary clarify the environmental liability regime

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In the last months of 2019, two judgments were made by Hungarian courts that clarify certain aspects of environmental liability and that are of interest in terms of access to justice in environmental matters. In Hungary, there are still a large number of contaminated sites that await clean-up, and in many cases the obstacle in front of the cleaning operations is the insecure liability situation.

The first such judgment that relates to an industrial site located in Kén street of the 9th District of Budapest was made in an administrative court case, affecting a large piece of urban land, contaminated by hydrocarbons. The area has always been and is still a part of a huge industrial area. The specific pieces of land are surrounded by other industrial estates and a cargo railway station. With this background, and with a number of previous owners having done business with chemicals and hazardous substances, it is not a surprise that the real estate is heavily contaminated. However, the area is owned by a number of natural as well as legal persons, who share ownership to diverse extents.

The competent environmental agency had the intention to clarify the liability of these owners, and therefore obliged all of them in one case with one decision to undertake the assessment of pollution by a given deadline. But as a matter of fact, the decision affected estates that – although seeming to be a natural unit – are registered at the Land Registry under different numbers, being legally separate pieces of lands. The owner of one of these estates complained and claimed not to be liable for the pollution of an estate owned of another company. The court accepted the reasoning of the applicant and declared that joint liability for the pollution of the environment can prevail for a distinct piece of land only, registered as a separate unit in the Land Registry. It also means that separate pieces of land, registered under distinct registry numbers, must be addressed by separate administrative decisions and the environmental agency must deal with each piece of land separately, in different administrative cases.

The second judgment finally put an end to the criminal procedure following the deadly red mud slide of 2010 in Kolontar, Hungary. To refresh memories on this disaster and the human toll it took, please visit this website .

An industrial accident at a caustic waste reservoir chain took place at the Ajkai Timföldgyár alumina plant in Ajka, Veszprém County, in western Hungary. On 4 October 2010, at 12:25 CEST (10:25 UTC), the northwestern corner of the dam of reservoir number 10 collapsed, freeing approximately one million cubic metres (35 million cubic feet) of liquid waste from red mud lakes.

The mud was released as a 1–2 m (3–7 ft) wave, flooding several nearby localities, including the village of Kolontár and the town of Devecser. Ten people died, and 150 people were injured. About 40 square kilometres (15 sq mi) of land were initially affected. The spill reached the Danube on 7 October 2010. The CEO and a number of technical staff of the company including engineers were indicted. It took 9 years for the criminal case to be finally closed by the court when it proclaimed its judgment on 13 December, 2019.

The former CEO of the Hungarian Aluminum Co. (MAL Zrt.) was sentenced to 4 years, while the former technical director of the company was sentenced to 3 years imprisonment, with no probation. The crimes committed were “causing a public emergency” and “breach of waste management regulations”. This judgment is stricter than the previous decision of the lower lever criminal court that sentenced the said two persons to shorter terms of imprisonment, and acquitted someone else from among those accused who was now sentenced to 2,5 years in prison by this 2019 December judgment of the higher level criminal court.

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