Rouen Residents Still Simmer Over Fire

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More than four months after fire struck a Lubrizol Corp. additive plant in Rouen, France, flames of distrust are still burning towards the company and government officials, as an investigation into the incident continues, demands go on for more testing and tempers shorten.

Environmental groups and citizens accuse government officials and Lubrizol of taking a cavalier attitude towards safety and health worries by failing to provide information about some testing for contamination. For its part, Lubrizol said it has no higher priority than protecting the health, safety and security of the ancient city and surrounding areas.

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In January, a central government prosecutors office in Paris expanded its investigation into the Sept. 26 blaze after allegations arose of safety code violations at the Lubrizol facility and a nearby storage facility owned by another company. This decision came after provincial authorities greenlighted resumption of limited activities in mid-December. The blaze destroyed more than 5,200 tons of Lubrizol chemicals, and an additional 4,250 tons burned at the neighboring warehouse owned by Normandie Logistique. In the aftermath, crops worth an estimated 40 million to 50 million were destroyed out of safety precautions.

It is clear that the population of the Rouen area has been extremely shocked by Lubrizol’s behaviour, said Corrine Le Page, Frances former environmental minister and a lawyer representing local residents in a lawsuite against Lubrizol. She spoke to Lube Report during an interview last week.

According to French press reports, in October three Paris-based public health magistrates started an investigation into whether the fire endangered lives, caused injuries or caused destruction.

In January that investigation was expanded after allegations that Lubrizol and Normandie Logistique did not meet fire containment requirements, having created a network of gutters with insufficient containment to hold the volume of chemicals involved. There were also accusations of not installing fire detection devices for outdoor chemical storage areas near the two buildings that went up in flames.

Le Page complains that the public has had a total lack of information on the nature of the pollution from the fire. She explained that under a 2015 French law, documents concerning safety rules arent required to be released publicly, giving tremendous opportunity for companies to skirt obligations to inform the public.

In any case, the [Rouen fire] victims association and, more generally, I think, many inhabitants of the region were not at all satisfied with the way in which Lubrizol responded to their concerns, she said.

Lubrizol contends that extensive testing showed that the incident did not create a threat to human health, adding that the company and independent third-party organizations conducted more than 100,000 analytical tests. We fully understand the questions that have been raised around public health, but we are confident the Lubrizol materials burned in the fire do not pose any health impact …, a spokesperson said. More than 120,000 results confirm this.

Ire is also directed towards the regional government, especially over environmental and health testing methods and results. Since the beginning of this affair, there has indeed been a very great mistrust of information given by the government and the prefecture, Le Page said. This mistrust is the result of a lamentable communication in which the prefect was suddenly able to state that the air quality was good. The air was unbreathable.

Residents of the impacted area expressed anger when French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe visited a day after the fire to calm their fears. The smells were noxious but not dangerous, he said, according to multiple local press reports.

Le Page noted that some diseases take much longer periods before they can be detected, saying, it is difficult to know what hazardous chemicals were released during the blaze. She contends that more detailed studies are needed before declaring no harm was inflicted on the publics health.

Many citizens are obviously very worried about their health because there is no epidemiological follow-up, she said, adding the ANSES, Frances health and food safety agency, remains extremely cautious and requires one year’s monitoring of agricultural products as well as water and soil. There is currently no study of the cocktail effects to which the inhabitants have been subjected or the health consequences that these cocktail effects could have. The real issue is the long-term impact of this toxic cloud on human health, she said.

Lubrizol has operated the Rouen facility for more than six decades and after the latest incident recognizes we have continued work to restore community trust, a Lubrizol spokeswoman told Lube Report. To do so, she added, Lubrizol is focusing on three areas: community engagement, safety and public health.

The company insists that the materials that burned are not toxic, reasoning that during a fire products will convert to their elemental form or oxides of those elements. More than 90 percent of the mix of elements in Lubrizols impacted products are comprised of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, the company spokeswoman has said. The remaining 10 percent are elements commonly found in consumer products.

Lubrizol stressed that, as a global business, it complies with local laws and regulations, as well as its own protocols and procedures, including safety measures. The Rouen site, she said, met all regulatory requirements at the time of the fire. The blending units approved for restart have operated safely for decades, and we are very confident they can be operated very safely now, the spokeswoman said. These areas were already equipped with state-of-the-art safety equipment, but weve made additional enhancements in recent weeks.

For example, Lubrizol added additional fire detection and suppression systems, as well as retention walls surrounding the units. The company also created buffer zones near property boundaries to further reduce the possibility of outside fire from reaching its blending units, the spokeswoman said.

To build public trust, the company has held dozens of meetings with a variety of stakeholders and answered questions they had. This included meeting with an expanded community advisory panel and hosting mayors from impacted areas to explain Lubrizols safety plan. We plan to host and be part of similar forums in the weeks and months ahead. Its always our desire to be completely transparent, she said.

However, according to local media reports, at least some residents in the impacted were already distrustful of the company due to a couple other accidents in recent years. In 2013, the site, which is located on the banks of the River Seine, leaked mercaptans from decaying zinc dialkyldithoisphosphate, also known as ZDDP. Mercaptans smells of cabbage or spoiled eggs blew as far as Paris and across the English Channel into southern England, causing the plant to close for a month. Then in 2015, 2,000 liters of mineral oil leaked into Rouens sewer system.

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