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Another French chemical factory shut in security alert

A chemical factory of the same kind as the Rouen site that caught fire last week - just four kilometres away - has been closed for security reasons today, as controversy over the original fire grows.

The 50-hectare Borealis chemical factory in Grand-Quevilly (Seine-Maritime, Normandy), near Rouen is classed “high threshold Seveso” - the same as the infamous Rouen Lubrizol factory - and is located just four kilometres away to the south-east.

It produces agriculture fertilisers and products aimed at reducing lorry transport emissions.

It has been closed since 7h45 this morning (Tuesday October 1) for “security” reasons after “a loss of electric power”, authorities in the Seine-Maritime department confirmed. This is likely “due to the overheating of a cell in the main power station”, the statement said.

Authorities were careful to state that no fire has been reported at the site.

Five days after Lubrizol

The news comes five days after the Lubrizol factory, also near Rouen, caught fire and sent clouds of black smoke into the air above the town and beyond, on Wednesday September 25.

The Lubrizol factory was also classed “high threshold Seveso”, which means that it is considered to be particularly dangerous, and should have appropriately-high security measures as a result.

Concerns have been growing over the safety of Rouen after the fire, which sent clouds of black smoke and soot into the air and surroundings.

Prime minister Edouard Philippe visited the site yesterday (Monday September 30; below) and said that although the smells from the factory were “irritating”, analyses had shown that the effects of the fire were not “toxic”.

He said: “The quality of the air is not in doubt”, and added: “The odors that we can smell are very irritating, and hard to put up with, and they can cause some reactions, but they are not toxic. That is what the scientists are telling me, and I tend to listen to them when it comes to safety and risk management.

Echoing other government ministers who promised “total transparency” on the issue, Mr Philippe continued: “I am very clear that we will say what we know as soon as we know it.”

He said that he “perfectly understood the worry” of nearby residents, including parents and teachers, and would “accompany” farmers and other producers affected in the region and nearby areas.

Farmers whose crops were affected by the fire are set to receive State victim compensation, agriculture minister Didier Guillaume has confirmed.

Producers of milk, free-range eggs, and local honey, are expected to be especially affected, until "guarantees of production safety" can be provided.


Local doubts

Analysis on the soot and other debris from the site are set to be heard in two days’ time, and the city of Rouen Normandie issued a statement saying that tap water across its 71 communes was "drinkable", with "no traces of contamination picked up", after concerns grew over its safety.

Yet, some locals have said they are not happy with the statements from authorities so far.

One town, Crécy-en-Ponthieu (Somme), which is located a few kilometres away from the restricted zone, has joined growing voices who doubt the safety of the area.

Residents have so far raised almost €2,000 in an online crowd fund, in a bid to pay for independent analysis of the pollution.

One inhabitant, speaking to news source FranceInfo, said: “This reminds me of Chernobyl…if we remember correctly, several years ago, Chernobyl was not supposed to pass by here. But when pollution comes, it comes for everyone.”

In an interview today, MEP Yannick Jadot said: “The government is deliberately not telling the truth about the extremely dangerous products that may have gone up in smoke…

“I ask that the government stops taking the French and Rouen residents for idiots, saying to them: ‘Don’t panic, we’re controlling the situation, but we’re not telling you everything.’ That is scandalous.”

A protester in Rouen holds a sign that reads "A chemical factory that burns without toxicity: Like a strawberry tart without the strawberries?" (Tendance Ouest 76 / @tendanceouest76 / Twitter)

“Flames 20 metres high”

An anonymous firefighter who attended the fire last week, has spoken publicly after publishing video of the scene (below), and questioning the safety of the site for the firefighters who were called out.

Speaking to news source France 2, he said: “Very quickly, we realised that this was going to be a far-from-ordinary job. The flames were 20 metres high, with intense strength, and [the next day] there was multi-coloured mud [from all of the gutted barrels].

“When we saw the size of the incident, we saw thousands of gutted barrels, mud 5-10 centimetres high, total chaos on-site, we realised the size of the catastrophe, and we started to ask questions. What is in the barrels? Are we at risk? I shouldn’t be here, we should have been much further away.

“We should not have been so close with only a thin paper mask,” he said, adding that the fire was the biggest incident he had ever seen.

Video: FranceInfo / Anonymous firefighter, Rouen

Fire questions

The cause of the fire has not yet been established, but investigations are underway.

The Rouen public prosecutor has opened an inquiry into “involuntary destruction” and “endangering the lives of others”, “by an evidently deliberate violation of a duty of security and care”.

According to the prosecutor, Lubrizol has filed a claim for “involuntary destruction by explosion or fire”.

In the past 24 hours, directors at Lubrizol have said that “video CCTV footage” and “eyewitness” reports, suggested that the fire started “outside” the factory site itself.

A statement said: “Video CCTV and eyewitness statements suggest that the fire was first seen and alerted to outside the Rouen Lubrizol site, which suggests that the origins of the fire came from outside Lubrizol, and unfortunately moved onto our site.

“We are continuing to support law enforcement with their enquiries, to determine the cause of the fire.”

The firm said that apart from the “barrelling and storage areas” of the factory, the site had been damaged “very little, to not at all”.

Lubrizol is said to have given the government a list of products that were burned in the fire, but these have not yet been made public.

MEP Mr Jadot said: “The government is promising to be transparent on the results of the analysis but not on what actually burned.

“The director of the factory said that he has given a list of materials that went up in smoke, which could be pollutants, which can poison people, which can make workers extremely ill; and the government is refusing to be transparent on this [particular thing]. I can say that I share the anxiety of workers and residents.”

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