Resident and environmental fears after French lithium warehouse fire

The fire has now been contained but residents and environmental campaigners have condemned the situation as ‘very severe’

A view of a fire engine in France with the emergency numbers 18 and 112
Firefighters brought the fire under control and there were no casualties, but residents and environmental campaigners still have concerns
Published Last updated

Environmentalists have called for answers after a fire at a lithium battery warehouse in southern France, which prompted a stay-at-home order for residents, and recalls the 2019 Rouen Lubrizol catastrophe.

A fire broke out at the warehouse - which contained 900 tonnes of lithium batteries waiting to be recycled - in Viviez, a small commune in Aveyron (Occitanie) on Saturday, February 17.

The order to stay home has now been lifted after the prefecture found that there was no risk of toxicity to the surrounding residents (those within 500 metres of the factory had previously been advised to stay at home while the risk was assessed).

The fire was brought under control by firefighters, and there were no casualties, the prefecture confirmed on Sunday, February 18. “The risk, in terms of toxicity, has been ruled out,” it said in a statement.

While the fire has been contained, the refighting operation could last a few more days, the prefecture said. “It’s difficult to get on top of these battery fires. We had to slow down the extinction to avoid nearby areas from being contaminated.”

Aveyron prefect Charles Giusti said that the prefecture had put a ‘post-accident unit’ in place to check if more precautionary measures would be needed in the next few days. “There is no way of determining the origin of the fire [at this stage],” he said.

Environmental concerns

Environmental association Adeba (l’association pour la défense de l'environnement du bassin et ses alentours) wrote on its Facebook page that the situation was “very severe”. Adeba member and activist, Jean-Louis Calmettes, said: “What’s dangerous is that there is a desire to prioritise industrial policies, and little poisonings like this won’t stop it.”

The Marseille sea fire brigade is still monitoring the toxicity of the smoke, and the water being used to extinguish the flames. Similarly, a team specialising in technological risks is involved, while forecasters Météo-France are assessing the impact of any possible atmospheric pollution.

Spokesman for the Ecologistes (ex-EELV) party in Aveyron, Léon Thébault, “is calling for samples to be taken not only of the air, but also of the water and soil in and around the plant to ensure that there are no health or environmental consequences”.

He said that the 500-metre containment zone was “insufficient”, and told the AFP that it was imperative to await the “results of the investigation to find out what caused the fire”.

Resident fears

Residents Jean-Pierre and Virginie told local news BFMTV that they still believed the situation was “very serious”, and said they had found debris from the fire even as smoke continued to billow out from the factory site.

Jean-Pierre said: “It’s pretty big; you don’t really expect this kind of thing when you come to Aveyron for some fresh air.”

Virginie added that she was upset that residents had not been consulted before the factory was built. She said: “It was imposed on us, and I don’t want it. I always think about what happened in Rouen.”

Read more: French city on alert after chemical plant blast

The Lubrizol factory fire in Rouen, Seine-Maritime (Normandy), broke out on September 26, 2019 at a high-security (Seveso) chemical factory, polluting the local environment and water.

Related articles

Another French chemical factory shut in security alert
MAP: What are France’s high risk ‘Seveso’ sites and where are they?
Explainer: What are Seveso risk sites and where are they in France?