A judge has 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, according to his lawyer.
Appearing after the closed court hearing reviewing the case, Zoltani Bakonyi's lawyer, Janos Banati, said the judge ruled in his favour after finding that prosecutors could not substantiate their argument that Mr Bakonyi did not sufficiently prepare emergency warning and rescue plans in case of accidents like 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, or the Hungarian Aluminium Production and Trade Company, for the deaths of nine people, hundreds of homes being left uninhabitable and the poisoning of local waterways.
Some 700,000 cubic meters (184 million gallons) of caustic sludge and water burst from a storage pool of the metals plant on October 4, inundating three western Hungarian towns and spilling into the Danube.
"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.
However, offering a little 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 and residents in Devecser were ready to leave at 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 neighbouring Kolontar meant to contain any new spill had been completed.
The National Disaster Management Directorate, meanwhile, said that the death toll had risen to nine after an elderly man died on Tuesday night. Of the more than 100 hurt by the caustic slurry, around 50 people remain in hospital.
Mr Banati said Wednesday's court ruling reflected defence arguments that the company had emergency plans which had been approved by government authorities and which 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, which owned the reservoir, part of the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant in Ajka, 100 miles south-west of Budapest. The red sludge which spilled after a part of the reservoir wall partially collapsed is a highly caustic byproduct of alumina production which is used to make aluminium.
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 due to its massive volume.