The chemical fire which broke out in Rouen on the night of September 25 wound up pumping some 5,253 metric tonnes of chemicals into the atmosphere, a local prefecture said in a statement. According to authorities, the release included over 3,300 tonnes of ‘multipurpose additives’, 711 tonnes of ‘viscosity booster’, a liquid mixed with substances including oil to reduce their thickness, and hundreds of tonnes of other chemicals including anti-freeze, anti-friction additives and dispersants.
The revelation comes following days of protests in the northern French port city of Rouen, with local residents demanding more information about the situation and pointing to damage to local agriculture and mysterious residues on buildings and in local water which they fear may be harmful to health. On Monday, one protester told a Sputnik correspondent that the industrial disaster may have been comparable to other major industrial disasters, including the 2001 Toulouse chemical factory explosion, the 1984 gas leak in Bhopal, India, and even the 1986 nuclear accident in Chernobyl.
Earlier, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe assured residents of the city of over 100,000 that the smell of burning material in the atmosphere over the city and surrounding countryside was “annoying but not harmful.” Shortly after the incident, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, called on residents to “avoid panic,” and said that there was “no reason to be overly worried.” Environment Minister Elizabeth Borne did not visit the city until the weekend, when she admitted that surrounding area was polluted.
Authorities have since advised rural residents not to consume produce from their plots, with farmers barred from selling crops and products of animal origin.
Close to 2,000 protesters took to the streets of Rouen on Tuesday evening, asking the government to put out more information about the chemicals involved in the fire and any health risks they may cause. According to The Local, residents reported suffering nausea and vomiting, black water coming out of their household taps, and rainwater containing residues of an unknown nature.
“There’s such a lack of information that we wonder if there’s anything being kept from us,” one worried local farmer said, speaking to France Info.
In response to the concerns, Prime Minister Philippe has promised “complete transparency.”
Speaking to BFM television on Tuesday, Pierre-Andre Durand, prefect of Seine-Maritime, the northern French region which includes the city of Rouen, said that his region was “living in a climate of generalised suspicion” following the fire, alleging that “fake news” has been spread about the fire and its consequences. “To the people of Rouen I say: We can live and work absolutely normally,” he stressed, pointing to environmental testing which he said showed that no harmful chemicals had been leaked into the air or city water.
The Rouen Lubrizol factory has experienced industrial accidents in the past. In January 2013, it was reported that the factory had leaked large amounts of the gas mercaptan. In 2015, another incident saw the plant leak about 2,000 litres of mineral oil into the local sewer system. The plant is owned by the Ohio-based chemical giant Lubrizol, owned by billionaire US investor Warren Buffett.
The Bhobal and Chernobyl disasters are considered two of the worst technogenic disasters in human history. Taking place in December 1984 at a Union Carbide-owned pesticide plant in India, the Bhobal leak exposed well over 500,000 people to deadly methyl isocyanate gas, and caused the deaths of over 3,700 people, severely injuring approximately 3,900 others. The Chernobyl nuclear accident took place in April 1986, and was the result of an explosion of the nuclear plant's Reactor Number 4 after deputy chief-engineer Anatoly Dyatlov ordered the shutdown of multiple computer safety systems and overrode concerns from multiple plant operators to carry out a 'safety test'. The disaster killed 50 people in its immediate aftermath, and irradiated hundreds of thousands more in the Belarusian and Ukrainian republics of the USSR. According to a 2005 World Health Organisation report, some 4,000 people may die prematurely as a consequence of cancers and other illnesses they were exposed to as a result of the disaster.