French question high-risk plants in urban areas after massive explosion kills 29

The French government and industrial leaders are seriously considering the position of allowing industrial facilities to be located in highly urbanised areas, following an explosion at a chemicals factory in the southwestern city of Toulouse which left 29 dead and at least 650 injured.

The explosion on 21 September at the chemical plant operated by the French company, Grande Paroisse, a division of oil giant, TotalFinaElf, in an industrial zone on the outskirts of the city of half a million people, flattened the surrounding area, blew out windows in the city centre and caused a red cloud to form over nearby houses. Twenty-two people were killed on the site, and seven from the nearby residential area, while some 650 were treated for burns and other injuries, with 30 in a serious condition, after the explosion, which was likened to an earthquake measuring 3.4 on the Richter scale and which left a huge crater in the ground and completely destroyed three schools and many houses.

Although TotalFinaElf is yet to confirm the cause of the blast, and an internal enquiry is underway, the Interior Ministry said the explosion was due to an “incident in the handling of products”. Some 6,300 tonnes of liquefied ammonia, 6,000 tonnes of solid ammonium nitrate and 30,000 tonnes of solid fertiliser were on site at the time and experts said the explosion might have occurred when stored ammonium nitrate leaked from a silo and was ignited by a spark, although TotalFinaElf said that the chemical was “stocked in strict conformity with existing regulations”.

TotalFinaElf executives have met with Yves Cochet, the French Minister of Regional Development and the Environment to discuss safety issues concerning industrial facilities and their coexistence in highly urbanised areas. “This is a complex problem,” commented Thierry Desmarest, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of TotalFinaElf after the meeting.

“We intend to work relentlessly with the Ministry to coordinate the needs of residential, business and industrial activities,” he said, adding that, in the long term, there would be “proposals that take into account problems related to urban planning, regional development and the future of industry”.

Locals, who had spent years campaigning to have the plant, which is one of 1,250 classified as ‘high risk’ and regulated by strict EU ‘Seveso’ rules, relocated to a less populated area, are outraged. When built in 1924, the plant was situated far from houses, but the growth of Toulouse brought houses in close range of this plant and others. Fatalities could have been far higher if the blast had ignited an explosives factory and another chemical works situated only a few hundred metres away. “The initial emotion has given way to anger,” commented Gerard Onesta, a local politician. “The aberration that allowed a dangerous chemical industry to exist in the town of Toulouse must be denounced.”

Following the blast local people were urged to stay indoors, although later tests showed there was no danger of contamination and restrictions were lifted. When edie was published, local authorities advised that ammonia concentrations in the air could still cause irritations and respiratory difficulties and were advising Toulouse citizens to wash fruit and vegetables. There is no danger to water quality, the local government advised, although there are high levels of chlorine.

“This explosion is an appalling tragedy,” Desmarest said. “It is a scene of shocking devastation, like a vision of horror. My initial thoughts go to the victims and their families, as well as to all the people of Toulouse who have been struck by this tragedy. The Group will deploy all resources possible to show its solidarity with the families of the victims and the people of Toulouse, who are affected by the catastrophe.”

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