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01.10.2019 Europe

Public anger grows after massive Rouen factory fire despite government reassurance

AFP Photos/Lou Benoist
LISTEN OCT 1, 2019
AFP Photos/Lou Benoist

France's agricultural minister says tests for health risks will be made public later this week, after an angry public outcry over the handling of a fire in the Lubrizol chemical plant in Rouen. Two environmental groups and left wing politicians have called for rallies on Tuesday evening.

“The analysis of health risks linked to the Lubrizol plant fire will be announced on Wednesday or Thursday,” said France's Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume on Tuesday.

“We know that there is pollution in Rouen, we know that asbestos has burnt, we know there were a lot of things," he said. “What we need to know now, is how bad the consequences on public health will be.”

“The site spans 14 hectares and 1,5 of that was burnt," the police chief of the Normandy region, Pierre-André Durand, told BFM TV.

“We know exactly the types of products stored in this factory. We are going through a list of the different products that were in the warehouse which was damaged by fire.”

Cause of blaze still unknown
However, the cause of the huge blaze, which started last Wednesday night, is still not known.

The managing director of Lubrizol, Frédéric Henry, told France Info public radio that he was “very surprised” that the fire started outside the plant, “where there is no activity, only a warehouse.”

Lubrizol emplys 420 people and makes products to thicken industrial oils and paints.

Farmers in trouble
At least 1,800 farmers in 112 surrounding villages have been affected by the fire, due to a ban put in place on the sale of their products since Saturday.

The Agriculture Minister said those who were not able to sell their products would receive compensation from a special fund, available in the next ten days.

Dairy farmers feel particularly vulnerable after witnessing the heavy smoke which blackened the sky after the fire.

“We don't have any information,” complained Stéphane Donckele, from the town of Catenay and secretary of a local branch of a farmers' union FNSEA.

One farmer told France Info radio that he had to throw away 14,000 litres of milk which he couldn't sell.

Local protesters gathered on Monday
On Monday evening, around 100 angry residents gathered in Rouen outside the building where local MPs were meeting with the police chief. Police were called to the site to stop the protesters from forcing their way inside.

Since Thursday, various ministers have tried to reassure the public and farmers.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe visited Rouen on Monday. He said he agreed the smell in the air was bad, but said that it was not dangerous, based on initial tests carried out in the area.

Environmentalists, schools not convinced
“The government has deliberately not told us about the very dangerous products that could've gone up in smoke,” said Yannick Jadot, a member of the European Green Party (EELV).

“The employees and local people will need to have regular check-ups in future in case there are illnesses that develop as a result of this.”

Although schools were officially re-opened on Monday, some schools complained of strong smells and requested that parents come to pick up their children if possible.

Some residents say they have felt side effects since the fire such as headaches, nausea and sore throats.

The Respire association, which defends the right to clean air, has made a formal request in the Rouen tribunal to set up an independent inquiry.

A union of environmental groups has called for a rally at 6pm local time in front of the Courts in Rouen, while the EELV and the far-left France Unbowed party have called for a rally in Lille at 6.30pm local time.

Another factory nearby shut down
Another factory in the same hazardous chemicals category as Lubrizol (known as Seveso) requiring a high level of surveillance, was closed out of precaution on Tuesday morning.

Operations at the Borealis fertilizer plant in Grand-Quevilly, near Rouen were shut down at 7.45 this morning local time due to a power cut.

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