By Ludwig Burger
FRANKFURT (Reuters) - German prosecutors said on Friday they were pressing charges against the chief executive, chairman and 12 other employees of potash and salt miner K+S over suspected illegal waste water disposal.
The group has for years fought complaints by environmental groups and some local municipalities about the discharge of salty waste water from processing potash ore into fertilizer products.
A judge told Reuters last month that prosecutors in the town of Meiningen, southeast of K+S's headquarters in the city of Kassel, had filed charges over suspected illegal waste disposal.
K+S has previously said it had obtained approval from state mining authorities for waste water disposal and it was fully cooperating with the investigators.
But in Friday's statement, prosecutors argued that those involved in the approval process, including three current and former mining authority employees, must have known that the expert opinion the clearance rested on was wrong about pollution levels.
There must have been "at least a tacit understanding that the approval was legally not justifiable", the statement said, adding: "Approval by way of collusion" was as serious as not having approval in the first place.
Prosecutors also said they would seek to claw back any profits obtained from the alleged misconduct.
A K+S spokesman referred to a statement issued by the company on Thursday, which said a legal audit it had commissioned from an external law firm had produced no evidence of criminal conduct.
The charges are directed at 14 employees of K+S, including the former and current chief executive, as well as further executive board members, a number of K+S staff, and also two employees and one former employee of the state of Thuringia mining authority, the prosecutors' office said.
K+S's current CEO is Norbert Steiner, who succeeded current chairman Ralf Bethke in 2007. Neither Steiner or Bethke could be reached for comment.
The regional court in Meiningen said on Friday that those charged would be heard before deciding whether the prosecutors' case will be accepted for trial.
Weekly magazine WirtschaftsWoche said on Wednesday prosecutors would seek 325 million euros ($353 million) in damages from K+S.
The company warned in December that limits imposed on its activities by regulators in a separate approval process could crimp output over the next few months.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Weiss; Editing by Christoph Steitz and David Holmes)