Hungarian police on Wednesday initiated a criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the Ajka chemical spill [CNN backgrounder] to determine whether to bring charges against the plant owners for criminal negligence. The spill occurred Monday, releasing more than 20 million cubic feet of chemical waste [BBC report], causing four deaths and 120 injuries, in addition to extensive ecological damage. The spill is expected to take more than a year to clean up [Guardian report], according to Hungarian Interior Minister Zoltan Illes. Under EU law, if negligent, the plant owner could be held liable [CTV report] for the damage. MAL Rt [corporate website, in Hungarian], the Hungarian company that owns the plant, has argued that there were no indications of the impending spill and that the chemical waste is not hazardous by EU standards. The spill is considered one of the worst ecological disasters in decades, and has gained the attention of EU officials, who have expressed concern over the waste reaching the Danube river, which would cause environmental damage throughout eastern Europe. The Hungarian government declared a state of emergency [NYT report] on Tuesday in several cities in the area surrounding the spill.
Companies have been charged with criminal negligence in the context of other chemical spills in the past, the most notable of which are in relation to the 1984 Bhopal chemical spill disaster [BBC backgrounder]. In August, the Indian Supreme Court announced that it will reconsider [JURIST report] a 1996 ruling allowing former employees of US chemical producer Union Carbide accused in relation to the 1984 chemical spill to be charged with negligence instead of culpable homicide. Seven men were convicted in June [JURIST report] on charges of "death by negligence" and sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay USD $2,100. The convictions were the first related to the Bhopal disaster in which nearly 3,800 people were killed when toxic gas was accidentally released in the middle of the night by a chemical plant owned by a Union Carbide subsidiary company. Upwards of 15,000 others later died from exposure to the gas, and 50,000 were left permanently disabled.