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Amid the ashes of the Lubrizol fire in Rouen, anger and anxiety

Aude Mazoué, France 24 | A week after the fire, smoke is still coming from the Lubrizol plant site.

A week after a fire ravaged the Lubrizol plant in Rouen uncertainties remain about the consequences of the combustion of chemicals. Residents are angry and worried, too.

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As he does every morning, Sylvain Lambert, a dairy cow farmer in Seine-Maritime, got up for the 5:30am milking. For the past week, though, he’s lacked his usual enthusiasm for the daily ritual. As a precautionary measure, the farmer is required to pour the 4,000 litres of milk that his Normandy farm produces every day into the neighbouring plain.

"It hurts to get up every morning to do that," he said, disillusioned. His family farm, in the small rural town of La Vieux-Rue northwest of Rouen, is less than 20 kilometres from where a fire broke out in the early hours of September 26 at a plant owned by Lubrizol, a company that makes industrial chemicals and is a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

There is no question that the precautions are necessary. The Chamber of Agriculture and the trade union did the right thing by warning the prefecture to stop milk deliveries, he said. "I would have felt bad if I had distributed milk that poses even the slightest risk to consumers. The important thing is to show that we are taking our job seriously so that we do not lose consumer confidence," he explained.

For the past week, 53-year-old farmer Sylvain Lambert has been throwing away his cows' milk every day. Photo credit: Aude Mazoué, France 24
For the past week, 53-year-old farmer Sylvain Lambert has been throwing away his cows' milk every day. Photo credit: Aude Mazoué, France 24

Some are "freaking out"

The financial situation of his GAEC (Groupement Agricole d'Exploitation en Commun – jointly run farms), which he has been managing since 1994 with his brother-in-law, however is far from idyllic. "Without cash inflow, with all the charges, taxes and loan maturities coming soon, we won't be able to hold out very long in this situation," he said. Some farmers with slow cash flow and low morale – the two being often linked – are "freaking out", he acknowledged.

Time is short and the results of the analyses, conducted during the first days after the fire, have yet to be released. Amid all these uncertainties, the 53-year-old farmer considers himself lucky all the same. First of all, he can count on his partner for moral support. He is also fortunate to have a woman working outside the home and earning a salary. Finally, he was able to harvest his corn and store it in a silo before the fire broke out, so he can feed his animals. That is not the case for everyone.

"Fortunately, aid was spontaneously organised,” he said. “Those who no longer have anything to feed their animals can rely on neighbouring farmers who were spared by the fire. The situation showed us that there was real solidarity in the farming world."

Lambert’s phone rang. It was the veterinarian offering to break Lambert’s bill into into smaller payments. The farmer accepted. At all levels, help is being offered.

Powerless, amid soot-soaked alfalfa bundles, Lambert held no grudge against the Lubrizol plant managers. He's more angry with the person responsible for the fire. And with the prefecture, which did not, according to him, grasp the enormity of the event.

He doesn't know what will come next. They had never experienced anything like this at the Hêtraie farm in living memory. The Norman breeder hopes to be able to sell his milk again soon. Starting next week, cows should be calving. No one knows what the effect of soot on the newborn calves will be. "We'll see," he said thoughtfully.

Police on the verge of a nervous breakdown

The atmosphere is equally gloomy at the Rouen police station. The 150 officers who were sent to the burning site are still angry. Sent to the scene of the fire when it first broke out to secure the site, they blame their superiors for having put them in danger.

"When they left, the men didn't even know they were going to a Seveso site [a site classified as hazardous], so needless to say they weren't equipped accordingly," explained Frédéric Desguerre, the regional secretary of the Unité SGP police union for Normandy.

Frédéric Desguerre, the regional secretary of the Unité SGP police union for Normandy. Photo credit: Aude Mazoué, France 24
Frédéric Desguerre, the regional secretary of the Unité SGP police union for Normandy. Photo credit: Aude Mazoué, France 24

Some received disposable protective masks after several hours on the scene, but these protective devices are only effective for a few hours. For want of anything better, "some even used dentists' masks. In other words, nothing at all", said the union leader.

As a result, most of them complained of headaches and nausea, Desguerre said. Three officers went to the emergency room, three were placed on sick leave and 29 reported consulting a doctor after the event.

Rouen, risk zone

This is not the first time that the sector has been affected by a chemical risk. Back in 2013 the same Lubrizol high-risk plant leaked mercaptan, a gas with a sulphur smell that can have toxic properties. Records show that at the time, residents suffered from chest pains, coughs, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. More recently, on February 17, 2018, a violent explosion followed by a fire occurred in the Saipol vegetable oil factory in Dieppe, about 60 kilometres from Rouen. Two employees were killed.

"We live in a high-risk area. It is inconceivable that so few precautions are taken," Desguerre said.

It must be said that the police don’t have much in the way of hazardous material equipment. "We only have 30 sets of NRB (radiological or bacteriological nuclear) equipment," he explained. In the event of a problem, "we are unable to intervene without risking our health".

In addition to the lack of resources, there is the fatigue. "Tired? The police are not tired. They are exhausted. After the Yellow Vests, the G7 in Biarritz and the ministers who take it in turns to come to Rouen, forcing the teams to remain mobilised to ensure their safety, the police officers are in low spirits. Really, Lubrizol, we didn't need that," Desguerre concluded.

The ghost of Chernobyl

A few kilometres away in the neighbouring town of Maromme, mayor David Lamiray, is also tired. "I rarely complain about fatigue, but I've been exhausted for a week now," he said. He is worn out from making decisions, wearied from having no information from the prefecture, drained by worry.

"I heard the news when I woke up at a quarter to seven, as I do every morning,’ he said. “Having heard it on the news bulletin, my wife informed me of the unimaginable."

Without delay, the mayor contacted his emergency services and convened a crisis unit on his own initiative. From that point on, he continued to call the special Seveso risk telephone line that links elected officials to the prefecture to tell them what initial emergency measures are required. He dialed in vain. The prefecture remained unreachable. It was only 11 hours after the fire broke out that the mayor was able to reach them.

"In Maromme, the inhabitants are worried and resigned at the same time," says Mayor David Lamiray
"In Maromme, the inhabitants are worried and resigned at the same time," says Mayor David Lamiray

Left to his own devices, Lamiray decided to put as many people as possible on lockdown. Schools and nurseries are closed until further notice. All municipal employees are subject to confinement. "I was playing in the playground of my school when the Chernobyl cloud passed over Normandy in 1986. There was no question for me of putting the population at the least bit of risk," he said.

Communication from the prefecture, an inflammatory subject

Mayors of neighbouring municipalities, without guidance from the prefecture, opted against putting their populations on lockdown so as not to panic them. "Everyone did what they wanted," a tired Lamiray said.

Lamiray is convinced that "we narrowly avoided a disaster". And the latest information he has is far from reassuring: some 160 barrels of hydrogen sulphide, a deadly odourless gas, are currently stored in the Lubrizol plant, which is still smoking a week after the disaster. Deformed by the heat of the flames, the gas's drums are not transportable. Technical teams are working to find solutions. "I'm really very worried. If a barrel gives way, we are courting a disaster with hundreds of deaths possible," he said.

When asked about the handling of the crisis, the prefecture did not respond to our questions.

This article has been translated from the original, which was in French.

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