Parliament calls for much stricter directive after French explosion

The European Parliament has called for a directive governing the prevention of major industrial accidents which is due for revision, to be made far stricter following the recent explosion of a French chemicals factory which killed 29 and setting it on collision course with the EU’s Environment Commissioner.

Following the explosion at a chemicals factory operated by the French company, Grande Paroisse, a division of oil giant, TotalFinaElf, in a residential area of Toulouse, which killed 29, injured around 2,400, and was the worst of its kind in Europe since 1921 (see related story), the European Parliament has urged much stricter proposals to update the Seveso II Directive. A draft proposal for an amendment to the Directive, which aims to prevent major industrial accidents and limit their environmental and health consequences, has already undergone public consultation and was recently foreseen for adoption by the Commission.

Parliament says the Commission must use the lessons learned from this disaster as the basis an updated the Seveso II Directive, which was proposed for amendment to broaden its scope, after follow up reports from an EU Baia Mare accident task force (see related story) and a fireworks explosion in the Netherlands last year. Until now, the Directive, which not one of the EU member states has fully implemented, has only applied to chemical plants and storage facilities.

The present legislation, which only came into force in 1999, obliges the operator of these facilities to put in place a major accident prevention policy, a risk management system and internal emergency plans. Furthermore, the public living in the vicinity of the plant must be informed of the risks arising from the facility. Parliament, however, believes that the concept of ‘risk management’ must be abolished in favour of ‘risk removal’ and that the issue of locating chemicals plants at a safe distance from urban populations must be addressed. It also demands an urgent, in-depth review by the member states of their regional and urban planning policies for areas close to risk sites.

Parliament also points out that the Toulouse factory, had been listed as being in an area covered by the Directive, and calls on the Commission to publish, within three months, a list of sites in the EU which are of concern or have to the potential, in an accident, to cause damage on the scale of this explosion. It also “strongly opposes” any attempt to relocate dangerous sites to countries outside the EU with lower standards. It wants the liability of industry and of the planning and land-use authorities clarified and strengthened and calls for the Commission’s promised directive on environmental liability to be issued “without delay”.

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström said that there was “no indication that there was either a deficiency on behalf of the operator managing the plant and complying with Seveso II or on behalf of the French control authorities responsible for inspecting the site”. The revised Directive, she says, aims in the long term at the separation of hazardous industrial establishments and inhabited areas or other locations frequented by the public. However, she added, the provision applies to “the planning for new industrial sites, for new housing zones, and does not retroactively apply to existing situations, such as Toulouse, where increasing density of population has led residential areas to continually spread closer to an industrial site that has existed since the 1920s.”

Wallström added that the exact causes of the accident are still unknown and the three investigations underway “might take a long time”.

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