On October 7 2015, Nicolas Schmit, Luxembourg Minister responsible for relations with the European Parliament during the Luxembourg Presidency of the Council, addressed, on behalf of the Council, the European Parliament in plenary session in Strasbourg, on the lessons learned from the 'red mud' disaster, five years after the accident took place in Hungary on 4 October 2010. He fielded a question together with a motion for a resolution tabled by a group of Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee MEPs (ENVI).
It should not be forgotten that this accident caused by a breach in a waste reservoir resulting in the release of almost one million cubic metres of highly alkaline red mud, causing flooding in several villages, 10 fatal casualties, with 150 injured and the pollution of a vast area of land, including four Natura 2000 sites.
Nicolas Schmit recalled that the Council had responded a short time after the accident, on 20 December 2010, by adopting conclusions on improving instruments regarding environmental policy, in which Member States and the Commission were invited to step up the implementation of EU environmental legislation.
He concluded that a "considerable body of European Union legislation designed to prevent accidents, such as the one that took place in Hungary, is already in place". In particular, he mentioned the legislation on integrated pollution prevention and control and on management of waste from the extractive industries. As regards industrial accidents, he stressed that they fall under the environmental liability directive.
The Minister stressed that the management and elimination of waste "is the responsibility of Member States". They must ensure that "their competent authorities check the operations of the mining industry's industrial waste management facilities. They must also ensure that the necessary measures to prevent contamination of water and soil have been taken, and that regular checks are carried out to ensure compliance with these measures", he said.
As for the Commission, it must "ensure that Member States abide by their obligation to implement EU legislation", the Minister pointed out. The Commission may instigate legal proceedings against a Member State which fails in its obligations and it has the right of initiative to introduce new proposals to the Council and the European Parliament.
Nicolas Schmit stressed the importance "of fully implementing the regulations in force governing environmental inspections", in close cooperation with the players concerned.
He concluded: "The precautionary principle, the polluter-pays principle and the obligation to put right damage to the environment are today part of the fundamental principles of international environment law. They are equally part of the European Union's acquis and are, in effect, enshrined in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. In the specific case of the 2010 catastrophe in Hungary, I would draw your attention to the fact that in applying the polluter-pays principle, the company responsible for the catastrophe has been subjected to a heavy penalty."
This penalty topped 470 million euros, recalled Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete, with responsibility for Energy and Climate Action. He recalled that this was the most serious accident in Hungary's history, in which 400 homes were flooded and rescue and site restoration costs topped 115 million euros. The Commissioner stressed the importance of effective legislation and full implementation to prevent such accidents. He recalled that the Commission has spearheaded several initiatives to modernise legislation governing major accidents. The Directive on the control of major-accident hazards, which came into force in 2012, also imposes much stricter industrial inspections and the obligation to inform the public in a far more detailed manner than was the case at the time of the accident.
The Chairman of the ENVI Committee who raised the question, Gianni La Via (PPE), called on improving the efficiency of the mining industry, and noted that there was "a lot more to do" to avoid such accidents in the future. In his view, Member States should review their authorisation systems for these industrial sites and step up inspections and monitoring. He recalled that in 2008, the European Parliament had already made a legislative proposal on environmental controls, and repeated this demand.
During the debate, several Hungarian MEPs spoke, emphasising the scale of the disaster, which had affected three Hungarian towns with a knock-on effect for the health of many people. A number of them stressed the need to rigorously enforce the polluter-pays principle. Some MEPs thought that the principle is ineffective, and called for a European guarantee system to be set up which would force the polluter to pay. Several MEPs condemned the poor implementation of the legislation by the Member States in particular Hungary, as well as a virtual absence of inspections.