Since Thursday, tributes to the late Jacques Chirac – the President of France from 1995 to 2007 – have occupied the headlines non-stop. The media’s fascination for men of power has eclipsed the rest of the news, including the fire at the Lubrizol plant in Rouen.
It’s still too early to know all the consequences this chemical accident will have on public health and the environment. Let’s not forget that it took three months before the authorities admitted that the fire at Notre Dame de Paris had caused lead pollution, endangering nearby residents and children in particular.
But as always, the authorities are downplaying the risks. During the Lubrizol fire, the prefect, the mayor of Rouen and no less than four ministers took turns to reassure the population.
Although they explained that the fumes were not toxic, they nevertheless closed the schools of a dozen neighboring municipalities for three days. They also asked farmers not to harvest their crops and the population to stay indoors. There have been breathing problems and headaches. The Seine has been polluted. Soot has covered gardens, houses, fields and animals. So the anxiety of the inhabitants is perfectly understandable. And this umpteenth accident is enough to worry us all.
The Lubrizol factory, although located three kilometers away from the city center in a residential area, was listed as a "high threshold" Seveso1. It was thus supposed to be under enhanced surveillance yet it turned out to be a real powder keg.
In France there are 705 industrial and chemical sites classified as “high threshold” Seveso – 705 sites that could blow up tomorrow the way Total’s AZF factory in Toulouse blew up in 2001! Because nothing has fundamentally changed since the 2001 explosion of AZF in which 31 people were killed and 2,500 injured.
It has been revealed that Total’s subsidiary, AZF, exploded due to negligence. Technically the explosion occurred after hazardous waste was accidentally dumped in the wrong place. The essential cause behind that mistake was of course the lack of sufficient control, training and staff – as workers are under constant pressure to do everything faster and faster. Which is the case in many workplaces today!
These factories constitute a terrible threat for workers and the public because the pursuit of profit always ends up taking precedence over safety.
Are governments forcing companies to be more transparent? Do they give legal opportunities to workers to report non-compliance? Have they authorized the disclosing of important industrial information that the bosses would rather keep for themselves? Not at all! When an incident occurs, politicians and the courts are always very understanding.
It wasn’t the first accident at the Lubrizol plant. In 2013, this factory, which belongs to a financial group owned by multi-billionaire Warren Buffet, produced a gas cloud the smell of which was noticeable as far away as Paris and the south of England. The fine it received for its negligence amounted to… 4,000 euros. One could be more heavily fined for stealing a scooter!
Two years later, the factory dumped several thousand liters of oil into the stormwater system. Well, that didn’t stop Lubrizol from obtaining an authorization to expand its activities in 2019!
From the scandal of asbestos to Dieselgate, from the Mediator to the Dépakine affair, we know that the bosses of big companies like Servier or Sanofi are quite ready to take the risk of poisoning us, as long as they can make a profit. And, as the case of Mediator shows, the poisoning is often covered by the authorities and those supposed to control the industry and its laboratories.
So yes, there is every reason to be wary of public authorities as well as of capitalists. They share a close bond. And statesmen are most respectful of corporate interests, never mind if it kills the planet!
Today in Rouen, residents and associations are organizing to demand accountability, and they are right to do so. But it is the organized and collective action of the workers that will be decisive.
Our society uses chemistry, gas, oil, nuclear energy… These dangerous activities should not be subject to private profit. The employees of these companies have the means to control them and denounce them when necessary, in association with the people in the surrounding neighborhoods willing to take action.
Yes, in addition to fighting big bosses for better wages and working conditions, workers have to lead the fight against the blatant irresponsibility of a system that constitutes a permanent threat to us all.
1 Seveso is the generic name for a series of European directives concerning the identification of industrial sites presenting a high level of risk. Any site presenting such a risk is supposed to be kept under high surveillance.