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Toulouse hosts 2001 industrial accident trial

A criminal court trial began on Monday in southern France to judge Grande Paroisse, a subsidiary of oil giant Total, for its responsibility in a 2001 industrial explosion that killed 31 people and injured thousands in the city of Toulouse.


Watch our reportage - AZF trial: what is at stake?


The trial to judge responsibility for the largest industrial accident in recent French history began on Monday in the south-western city of Toulouse, where extraordinary measures have been put in place for what is to be a four-month long proceeding.


In September 2001 the AZF (French initials for AZote Fertilisant) chemical fertiliser plant, a subsidiary of French energy giant Total, was at the origin of a massive explosion that killed 31 people and directly or indirectly injured thousands more.


Among the first court decisions was a move to officially increase the toll attributed to the blast from 30 to 31 victims, removing one victim who died of a heart attack two days after the explosion, but adding the names of two others.

The blast, equivalent to an earthquake measuring 3.2 on the Richter magnitude scale, left a crater 10 metres deep and 50 metres in diameter and damaged close to 30,000 homes in the chemical plant’s periphery.

The Toulouse criminal court will judge the responsibility of then-AZF director Serge Biechlin, and parent company Grande Paroisse (belonging to Total), in the catastrophic incident.


The accused are being charged with involuntary homicide, involuntary bodily damage, and involuntary property destruction, as well as negligence of workplace safety codes.


Extraordinary proceeding


A special municipal building room has been equipped to serve as the courtroom, and to host at least one thousand people. Some 1,800 plaintiffs, 60 lawyers, and dozens of experts are expected to appear during the trial


The court proceedings will be filmed, one of only a few cases in French judicial history, while five magistrates, instead of the usual three, will preside over the court room.

Diverging theories

An official investigation spanning seven years concluded that the AZF chemical plant’s managers demonstrated insufficient concern for safety risks. 


The explosion itself, according to the expert report, was triggered when a mix of sodium dichloroisocyanurate and ammonium nitrate was dumped on a stockpile of 300 tonnes of additional ammonium nitrate, some fifteen minutes before the blast.


Speaking ahead of the trial, the city’s prosecutor accused the chemical company of negligence, stating that “the constant vigilance of security that should have existed in such a place, was no longer a permanent concern.”


Parent company Total and former AZF employees dispute the findings of the investigation. They contend that other theories where never fully explored, including that of a terrorist attack.

"I am convinced that a chemical mix is the wrong explanation [for the accident]," Biechlin told the media. "The plant met all safety standards."

The trial in Toulouse begins one year after a French court found Total guilty of negligence that ultimately led to the sinking of the oil tanker Erika, ordering the company to pay 192 million euros in damages.



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