Switzerland's chemical industry has signed an accord accepting full responsibility for clearing up Europe's biggest toxic waste dump in canton Jura.
An agreement between Basel Chemical Industries, which owns the site at Bonfol, near the French border, and the cantonal authorities was signed on Tuesday. But the details of how the site will be cleaned up are still far from clear.
Bonfol stopped receiving waste in 1976 after a 15-year period of service. It contains around 114,000 tonnes of chemical waste including solvents, colourants and even slightly radioactive material from the watch-making industry.
The dump was used by companies such as Novartis and Roche, which are grouped with other chemical companies under the umbrella organisation, BCI.
Many have criticised the BCI for delaying a decision to clear Bonfol.
"We've always taken responsibility for Bonfol," says BCI spokeswoman, Franziska Ritter. "The problem has been a lack of communication between the parties and that's what got better."
Cantonal authorities and campaigning groups welcomed Tuesday's decision. All sides now await a report expected early next year from a panel of experts appointed by the Federal Government.
That report will detail how the clear up will proceed.
"First, it will be difficult from a technical aspect because Bonfol is a waste site of a size that bears no comparison," admits Franziska Ritter. "Secondly, it poses problems because we have to do everything to ensure the safety of the local population and the environment."
The BCI says it is maintaining close contact with the authorities in Bonfol to ensure the local population is kept well-informed.
The total cost of the operation is expected to be around SFr200 million, which will be borne by the BCI.
The environmental organisation, Greenpeace, which has been at the forefront of the campaign to have Bonfol cleaned up, welcomed the agreement but said next year's report will be even more important.
"It's an important step because it's the political and legal part of a deal between the owner of the landfill and the territorial authorities," says Greenpeace's Clement Talusso. "But we won't be happy until the spring when we see the details."
Greenpeace says it has evidence that toxic waste from the site has leaked into the local environment. It says it has measured tiny traces of Novartis products in local fountains.
Although Greenpeace concedes that the amounts are too small to cause an immediate health hazard, it says the seepage does give cause for concern. It said it would be keeping a close eye on the methods employed in clearing Bonfol.
"All the contents must be removed but also thousands of tonnes of earth that has been in contact with them," said Talusso.
Other cantons are also likely to monitor events in Bonfol closely as they decide whether to take action against industrial polluters.
by Michael Hollingdale