Basel cleans up its act

Despite signs that the Rhine is safe, bathing in the river is not recommended (swissinfo)

In 1986 Basel was rocked by an environmental disaster after toxic chemicals leaked from a factory into the Rhine, polluting the water and killing thousands of fish.

Although the river has been cleaned up since then, the environmental organisation, Greenpeace, says there are still harmful pollutants in the water.

On 1 November, 1986, a fire broke out at the Sandoz factory in the Schweizerhalle in Basel, and toxic chemicals leaked out into the Rhine.

The river turned red, thousands of fish died, and the eel was totally wiped out. The effects were felt as far up the Rhine as the Netherlands.

But Matthias Wüthrich, from Greenpeace Switzerland, says that although the accident acted as a spur to clean up the Rhine, there are still potentially harmful pollutants to be found in the water.

“If you analyse the water just after [it has gone through] the water treatment system, you can still detect hundreds of chemicals,” Wüthrich told swissinfo.

“The problem is that they are mostly unknown and in such a small concentration they’re not visible - unlike the accident in Schweizerhalle where the Rhine turned red.”

Wüthrich says one of the major problems is chemical micropollutants that behave like hormones and have been found to make fish infertile.

He says another cause for concern is the fact that solid waste from Switzerland is sometimes dumped over the border where it seeps into the groundwater and eventually back into the Rhine.

Safe water

This content was published on July 27, 2003 - 18:29

Marin Huser, a water quality specialist working for canton Basel Country – the area around Basel - agrees that there are still some problems.

He says although the water quality in the Rhine is good and falls within the limits set by law, the effects of these hormone-active substances are still being researched.

“One doesn’t know yet if what we know already is just the tip of the iceberg or already a big part of the problem,” said Huser.

Rolf Klaus, the chief safety inspector of canton of Basel Country, says that the authorities are also addressing the issue of dumped waste.

“The problem of getting rid of dumped waste is now being discussed in the Upper Rhine Conference, and all the waste dumped in the region will be put on a list, not just in Switzerland, but also in Baden-Wuttermburg and Alsace,” Klaus told swissinfo.

But for Wüthrich, the problem should not just be dealt with by the authorities. He says industry in Basel, including the big name pharmaceutical and chemical companies, are responsible as well.

“I want Novartis, Ciba, Syngenta, Clariant, Hoffmann-La Roche to take responsibility and clean up those waste disposal sites,” he said.

“Nature isn’t a dump site, and the Rhine isn’t a flushing toilet.”

swissinfo special corrspondent, Isobel Johnson in Schweizerhalle

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