Toulouse remembers 31 dead in AZF factory explosion 20 years ago

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Associations of victims, former factory employees and elected officials gathered in Toulouse this morning (September 21) to commemorate the deadly explosion of the AZF factory that occurred 20 years ago today.

The explosion was the biggest industrial disaster in France for several decades, killing 31 people and injuring 1,500.

Every year, on September 21, a siren sounds at 10:17 a.m., time of the explosion, and a minute of silence is observed on the site of the old factory.

This year, the mayor of Toulouse Jean-Luc Moudenc unveiled a remembrance trail around the existing memorial, made up of nine panels that tell the story of the factory and the disaster that occurred there.

On September 21, 2021, hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the factory, causing an explosion that left a crater six meters deep, 5 km south of downtown Toulouse.

The factory itself was completely destroyed and severe damage was done to buildings in the southwest of the city, including schools, shops and homes.

The sound of the explosion could be heard 80 km away and caused a seismic shock with a magnitude of 3.4.

A reader of Connexion, who then lived near Toulouse (11 km west of the city) remembers the explosion very well.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “I was 13 and I was in school, in history class, when it happened. There was a huge “boom” and all the windows and doors in the school suddenly opened. None of us knew what it was.

“We were all sent home very soon after that, and people were warned to cover their faces and not to go outside. We didn’t know what had happened, what was the cause of the explosion or if the cloud was toxic. Everything was very uncertain.

Factory owners convicted of manslaughter

Investigations revealed that several factors caused the explosion.

The initial chemical reaction was caused by a plant worker who spilled 500 kg of chlorine on stockpiles of ammonium nitrate. However, the ammonium nitrate was initially stored in an unsafe manner and investigations revealed that the conditions in the hangar before the explosion, which were confined and humid, also contributed to the magnitude of the explosion.

Finally, the courts condemned the company that ran the factory, Grande Paroisse, and the factory manager, Serge Bichelin, for manslaughter and injuries.

Of the 31 people who died, about 20 were factory workers. The majority of physical injuries caused were to people’s hearing due to the impact of the explosion or flying debris such as shards of glass.

The incident also had a profound psychological impact, with some estimates indicating that 18 months later, 14,000 people were being treated for problems with sleep, anxiety and depression.

Our reader told us, “It was even stranger and more frightening because it happened right after 9/11. [which had happened just 10 days before].

“Everyone was still in shock, then we had this massive ‘boom’ close to us. No one knew if it was a terrorist attack, a bomb, an explosion or what. It was scary.”

What protections exist in France for hazardous chemical factory sites?

The AZF factory was covered by a “Seveso II” directive, which entered into force in 1999.

This had replaced a 1982 directive that aimed to offer more protection following accidents at work in the 1970s, the European Commission (EC) heard in a debate on the subject in 2001.

Officials at the AZF plant had carried out risk assessments to comply with this directive, but that had not included ammonium nitrate.

After the disaster, the EC debated the introduction of a new article in the Seveso II Directive, which would regulate the separation of hazardous sites and inhabited areas or places where the public is likely to be present.

On June 1, 2015, the Seveso III Directive entered into force, replacing the Seveso II rules. A key change in the Seveso III Directive included an obligation for factories and local authorities to test disaster contingency plans.

The “Seveso” directives are European classifications of factories which store or use dangerous chemicals in France. They are named after the Italian town of Seveso, which suffered a terrible accident at work in 1976.

They aim to prevent major industrial accidents and to limit the consequences of their use for humans or the environment.

Chemical sites are classified according to the risk they present, within the Seveso directive. These include the “Top Tier” and “Upper Tier” establishments, which are the most dangerous.

Seveso III regulations also specify that sites must now “take into account hazardous substances which it is reasonable to predict that they may be generated by loss of control”.

The purpose of classification means that if something were to happen, emergency services and responders have a defined process for how to respond and what to expect.

In French, the classifications are “Seuil Bas” (Low threshold, lower risk) and “Seuil Haut” (High threshold, higher risk).

Where are the Seveso factories and sites in France?

There are currently 1,171 Seveso sites across the country, classified as such because of their storage or the use of potentially hazardous industrial chemicals.

They are usually found in more industrial and urban areas, like Paris, Marseille and Lille, but some are located in more rural places like the Dordogne.

After the explosion and fire at an ExxonMobile Seveso site in Rouen, in October 2019, the Sciences et Avenir site drew up a map of the locations of these sites in France, using data from the French government.

Map: Sarah Daz / Sciences et Avenir

You can zoom in on the map and click on each “point” to get more details about the site there.

Residents in France have the legal right to challenge the construction projects of any new Seveso site near them, if they believe that the correct channels and safety rules were not followed during the installation of the said site. site.

Despite the directives, chemical incidents continue to occur in France.

The most recent Lubrizol explosion in Rouen closed schools, allocated food, forced people to leave their homes and sent a plume of poisonous smoke to the UK; while another similar chemical plant was closed a week later for security reasons.

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