Toulouse disaster prompts changes in French risk management

by Olivier Salvi and Nicolas Dechy

A terrible explosion of ammonium nitrate, causing 30 fatalities and an estimated 10,000 injuries, occurred on 21 September 2001 at the AZF plant in Toulouse operated by a Total subsidiary. The plant was located in the suburbs of the city and the accident caused widespread damage on and off-site, at an estimated cost of €1.5bn. Investigators (corporate and judicial) have not yet reached agreement on the origins of the accident. But with several enquiries, nationwide debate and a special parliamentary committee, risk management has learned some new lessons. Some are refl ected in a new law on prevention of technological and natural risks.

The management of environmental protection and risk prevention is evolving. This is clearly the result of the growth of the information society and better informed public opinion worldwide, coupled with more widespread concern for these issues. Following a string of major industrial disasters our “risk society” is increasingly wary of the role of experts in assessing risks and the ability of science to provide defi nite answers. Following the Seveso accident in 1976, the European Union adopted the Seveso Directive on process industries in 1982. The Seveso II Directive (96/82/CE) followed in 1996, initiating changes in risk management at a national level. The ISO/IEC standard 73 was adopted at the same time. It describes risk management as a decision-making process based on risk assessment. To prevent major accident hazards we must keep assessment and control of potential accidents in their own context.

The AZF plant produced mainly ammonium nitrate, ammonium nitrate-based fertilisers and other chemicals including chlorinated compounds. The explosion occurred in a warehouse where some 400 tonnes of off-spec materials were being stored. France’s National Institute of Industrial Environment and Risks (Ineris) estimated the explosion’s TNT equivalent mass between 20 tonnes and 40 tonnes1. The plant was located on the outskirts of a city of 750,000 people. The accident consequently caused very serious destruction, damaging some 27,000 dwellings2. Estimates issued by national and local authorities indicate that 10,000 people were injured (physically). A further 14,000 people applied for medical treatment for acute post-traumatic stress in the months following the explosion3.

The Toulouse disaster prompted nationwide debate, leading to a new law to improve risk management (2003-699). It introduced a signifi cant change to the prevention of technological risks. The second part of the law refl ected lessons learned from recent fl oods and natural disasters (fl ooding caused by the Somme, Gard and Hérault rivers).

The disasters at Enschede and Toulouse reminded Europe that the control-based Seveso II directive (in particular its Safety Management System requirement) was not enough to prevent major accidents turning into disasters. Moreover the trend for major accidents recorded in the European Commission’s MARS database (EC, 2002) indicates an annual EU average of roughly 30 to 40 major accidents (1995-1999).

Controlling major accident hazards by reducing on-site risks does not in itself promote sustainable development in industry or urbanisation. Land-use planning (LUP) is required too. France’s new law encourages local authorities to contribute to framing and implementing Technology Risk Prevention Plans (PPRT) putting a long-term perspective on urban development around hazardous plants. It also gives local councillors a stake in the risk prevention decisionmaking process, instituting Local Committees for Information and Dialogue (CLIC). Public opinion thus becomes involved in decision-making, the aim being to make choices more acceptable to local stakeholders.

The key issue is how to deal with the existing situation without increasing risks. Each time industry encroaches on an LUP perimeter it will be liable for compensation. In the vicinity of Seveso sites PPRTs will defi ne no-go or reduced access zones. Additional protection (better windows, etc.) is required on dwellings inside a larger perimeter. There is also scope for fi nancial incentives to encourage people to accept voluntary dispossession orders. The relevant fi rms and local and national government will share costs. To avoid the delays that followed recent disasters, compensation will be streamlined, with insurance companies being obliged to pay victims for any damage, prior to negotiating compensation directly with their industrial counterparts.

Another important lesson refl ected in the new law is the need to make allowance for poor management of subcontractors and in particular the breakdown in communication between employees of the main company and subcontractors. The law seeks to monitor subcontracting on Seveso sites.

When framing the new law the competent authorities drew on Ineris’ longstanding involvement in risk management and its contribution to one of the Toulouse enquiries. It also used recent results of European and French research projects. Several enquiries provided a wealth of analytical data and proposals which also contributed to framing the law. It addresses a number of issues – public information; public, employee and subcontractor involvement in the decision-making process; new rules for land use planning; improved fi nancial compensation for victims – complementing the Seveso II Directive. There was no question of changing the application of the Seveso II Directive in France. On the contrary the aim was to make it stronger. Some lessons (white paper, changes in Seveso II directive) have also been learnt at a European level.

Olivier Salvi and Nicolas Dechy are researchers at France’s National Institute of Industrial Environment and Risks (Ineris).

1. Barthelemy et al 2001 and Mouilleau et al, 2002. 2. Dechy et al, 2004-a. 3. Lapierre-Duval et al 2004.

Reference documents The new law: Loi n°2003-699 du 30 juillet 2003 relative à la prévention des risques technologiques et naturels et à la réparation des dommages EC Council communication n°2002/C 28/01. Europe’s environment: the third assessment. European Environment Agency Copenhagen, Denmark. ISBN 92-9167-574-1. Rasmussen, J, Svedung I., 1997, «Organisational decision making and risk management under pressure from fast technological change», in Safety management, the challenge of change, Edited by Pergamon.

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