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‘We want the truth!’ Fear and suspicion in Rouen after chemical plant blaze

Philippe Lopez, AFP | Smoke billows from the Lubrizol chemical plant in Rouen on September 26, 2019.

Days after a massive fire ravaged a chemicals factory in Rouen, anxious local residents and environmental activists are staging a protest in the northern French city – unconvinced by the government’s assurances that the air and water are safe.

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Pierre-André Durand, the prefect of Seine-Maritime, in France’s northern region of Normandy, is a man under pressure. As the highest ranking official in the area around Rouen, Durand is in charge of coordinating the French state’s response to the devastating fire that ravaged the city’s Lubrizol chemicals factory on Thursday. And the least one can say, is that members of the public are not convinced the state is up to the task.

“We’re living in a climate of generalized suspicion,” Durand told BFM television on Tuesday, lamenting the spread of “fake news” regarding the fire and its consequences. “The government’s line is transparency, transparency, transparency,” he protested. “What interest would we have in lying or hiding the facts?”

Back to normal?

Thursday’s fire erupted in a storage facility owned by Lubrizol, a manufacturer of industrial lubricants and fuel additives owned by the billionaire American investor Warren Buffett. Firefighters needed several hours to put out the massive blaze, which spewed out an oily, black plume that darkened Rouen and surrounding areas for most of the day.

The following morning, Durand tried to reassure residents despite the strong smell of hydrocarbons still hanging over the city, famed for its Gothic cathedral.

"To the people of Rouen I say: We can live and work absolutely normally," said the regional prefect, even as he ordered schools shut for thorough cleanups of the black soot that had descended on the playgrounds and courtyards.

Durand said tests had found no harmful toxins in the air or city water, though suggested that older people susceptible to breathing difficulties "may want to avoid going outside". As for the River Seine that flows through Rouen, downstream from Paris, Durand said there had been some pollution from the blaze, but insisted it had been contained with floating barriers.

>> Chemical plant fire in northern France poses pollution threat to Seine

Only hours later, however, France's health minister sounded a more cautious note after visiting the site.

"The city is clearly polluted," minister Agnès Buzyn told reporters, adding: "I cannot guarantee that there is no danger. There are of course traces of hydrocarbons."

‘Not harmful’

Buzyn was the second of five ministers dispatched to Rouen amid government efforts to appear proactive in tackling the crisis. Last in line was Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who on Monday acknowledged the “unpleasant” odours that continued to hang over the city, but insisted they were “not harmful”.

Critics were quick to point out the apparent contradiction between his claim and Buzyn’s. If Philippe was so certain, they asked, why did local authorities order a precautionary ban on crops and produce of animal origin from the region?

Adding to the confusion, Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume told French media on Tuesday that the government wouldn’t be able to publish the results of health tests carried out in the Rouen area before Wednesday or Thursday.

“We know the air is polluted over Rouen, we know some asbestos was burnt,” Guillaume said. “What we still need to know is whether the pollution is serious and can carry consequences for public health.”

By then, the cacophony had compounded the sense that officials either didn’t know the extent and gravity of the pollution resulting from the blaze – or were seeking to hide it.

‘It would help if we knew what our kids were breathing’

On Monday evening, several hundred protesters attempted to force their way into a meeting of the Rouen metropolitan council, shouting “We want the truth!” The next morning, teachers in several schools exercised a “right of withdrawal”, citing the persistently foul odours and cases of nausea and vomiting. By lunchtime, at least two schools had asked parents to come and collect their children.

“It would help if we knew what our kids were breathing,” one pregnant mother told an AFP reporter at a school near the Lubrizol factory. “If schools need to close they should do so all day, not just half a day,” fumed another, lamenting an “organizational nightmare”.

Speaking from a protest in Rouen, mayoral candidate Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol, a former head of Normandy's regional council, told FRANCE 24 that the city’s residents “need more transparency” from the authorities.

“People here are asking simple questions, like ‘Can my children go to school safely?’ he said. “But unfortunately these simple questions are not receiving simple answers.”

Respire (Breathe), an environmental group and one of the protest’s organisers, is among several organisations to have lodged appeals with the administrative court in Rouen.

“I am not a conspiracy theorist, I don’t say the state is lying,” its leader Corinne Lepage, a former minister, told reporters. However, “I have the impression that not all tests have been carried out, and that there are products nobody is talking about that should be discussed, such as dioxins, asbestos and heavy metals,” she added.

Ghosts of Chernobyl

You know members of the public are alarmed – and deeply suspicious – when comparisons with the Chernobyl nuclear disaster abound.

“The French have not forgotten the tale of the Chernobyl cloud stopping at the border,” remarked an editorial in French daily L’Union on Tuesday, referring to the infamous government claim that radiations from the 1986 nuclear disaster had miraculously stopped along the River Rhine, leaving France untouched.

“In seeking to reassure the public, this bizarre communication strategy has resulted in the opposite effect: an immense suspicion,” added the paper, in a stinging rebuke of the present government’s handling of the Lubrizol incident.

In an interview with FRANCE 24, high school student Etienne Cognet, a member of the activist group Youth for Climate Rouen, highlighted the inconsistencies in the government’s discourse.

“One day we are told there are traces of asbestos and benzene, and the next day they say there’s no toxicity,” he said. “If there is nothing noxious, then why are students in my school still feeling ill?”

'We're asking for more transparency,' Rouen mayoral candidate Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol tells FRANCE 24

According to Annie Thébaud Mony, an eminent cancerologist at France’s Inserm medical research institute, members of the public have every reason to be alarmed.

“The plume of smoke that passed over Rouen is laden with a highly toxic dust that is at the very least carcinogenic,” she told the French daily Sud-Ouest. “The prefect is not lying when he says there is no acute toxicity in the plume itself, but he cannot rule out the threat of it being toxic in the longer term.”

State ‘complicit’

Bowing to pressure from the public and from the left-wing opposition in parliament, Prime Minister Philippe said the government would publish the full list of chemicals stocked at the Lubrizol plant and consumed in the fire, amid media reports that “highly dangerous” substances were present at the site.

“It’s been five days since the catastrophe! How is it possible that you waited five days to publish this list?” raged leftist lawmakers François Ruffin as government members were grilled at the National Assembly on Tuesday.

“The people of Rouen demand the truth,” added Delphine Batho, a former environment minister, saying the “state is at fault” with its “chain of imprecisions, approximations and omissions”.

Earlier, prominent Green Party member Yannick Jadot said the government’s failure to disclose the list earlier had “heightened the concern and anguish of factory workers and local residents”. Pointing to past incidents that occurred at the same plant in Rouen, Jadot said the French state had been “complicit by failing to punish [Lubrizol] and then granting it further authorisations”.

Thursday’s fire was the third serious accident in seven years at the site.

In January 2013, a huge cloud of mercaptan gas leaked from the factory and blew all the way to Paris and across the Channel into southern England, where residents complained about the smell. And in 2015, 2,000 litres of mineral oil used in lubricants leaked from the Lubrizol site into the local sewer system.

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