Chemical firms told to dump toxic waste plan

Environmentalists say the chemical industry isn't taking its duties seriously Keystone Archive

Environmental organisations have sharply criticised Basel's chemical industry over its plans to clean up a toxic waste dump in western Switzerland.

This content was published on May 14, 2004 - 17:13

Groups, including Greenpeace, claim the proposals for the Bonfol dump are “too dangerous” and threaten the safety of both workers and local residents.

Speaking in Basel on Friday, Philippe Riat of the WWF said the project in its current form was a non-starter.

“It does not take account of accepted health and safety regulations governing the clean-up of contaminated sites,” he told swissinfo.

The Bonfol dump is one of the country’s largest chemical waste sites. Between 1961 and 1976, 114,000 tons of solvents, pesticides and pollutants were dumped there.

Environmental organisations are now demanding that the government of canton Jura terminate its contract with the Basel Chemical Industry (BCI) group, which submitted plans for cleaning the site last year.

They want an independent body to oversee the process.

Protected areas

The BCI, which represents the 14 companies that used the dump, spent over two years drawing up the plan after the canton ordered them to restore the site.

The operation is expected to cost SFr280 million ($216 million) and would see the removal of all the chemical waste, plus another 36,000 tons of contaminated soil.

This would be treated and then incinerated, mainly in Germany. Work would begin in 2006 and would last five to six years.

Roman Hapka of Pro Natura criticised the chemical industry for not taking the project seriously enough.

“The fact that it [the plan] has been found to be lacking in some sections makes it seem as though the industry is just looking for a way out,” he said.

“The Bonfol dump is in the middle of a series of protected areas that would suffer from heightened pollution if the work was done badly.”

Border zone

Concern over the clean-up project has spread across the border into neighbouring France.

Environmentalists warn that water supplies could be threatened if pollution was to occur, since most of the run-off water from the dump area flows into France.

Alain Fousseret, a Green Party spokesman from the Franche-Comté region, called the BCI plan a “scientific hoax”.

“This project threatens the air and the water resources of thousands of people, as well as the employees working on the site,” he said.

Unions are also concerned. Hans Schäppi from the Building and Industry Union said the plan failed to meet the latest safety guidelines.

“We expect more from these major companies, especially Roche and Novartis, which like to say they are looking after people’s health,” he added.

Surprise

Michael Fischer, head of the BCI clean-up project, told swissinfo he was surprised by the strength of the criticism.

“Other experts approved our project,” he said. “But we are still working on some of the finer details.”

The cantonal authorities have yet to rubber-stamp the plan; a decision is not expected before the end of June.

Since the Bonfol scandal, the Swiss have been taking steps to tighten pollution regulations.

The country recently passed a law to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated. Since 2000, it has been obligatory for all organic chemical waste to be collected and incinerated.

It took six years and SFr400 million to clean up 560,000 tons of toxic waste at another dump in Kölliken in northern Switzerland.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

The Bonfol site was used from 1961 to 1976 by the Basel chemical industry, which dumped 114,000 tons of toxic waste there.
The BCI reckons around 70% of the waste was deposited there in 300,000 to 400,000 barrels, most of which were damaged.
In the early 1980s, the BCI found out the dump was leaking toxic liquids.
Around SFr28 million were spent between 1986 and 1995 to re-seal the site.

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In brief

In 2000, the Jura cantonal government ordered the chemical industry to clean up the Bonfol site.

In December last year, the BCI submitted a project that would cost SFr280 million, with work lasting until 2014.

The 14 members of the BCI would support all costs.

Environmental associations say that the project is insufficient, and that the environment and workers would be at risk.

Groups are demanding changes to the plan and that the project be headed by an independent body.

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