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Schweizerhalle fire Chemical disaster still burns in Swiss memory

Thirty years after a fire caused a major chemical spill near Basel, many open questions remain. The Federal Office for the Environment is awaiting the final report before issuing new safety guidelines.

In the early hours of November 1, 1986, a fire broke out at a warehouse belonging to chemicals company Sandoz at the Schweizerhalle industrial area just outside Basel. Around 1,351 tonnes of pesticides and agrochemicals went up in flames.

The accident turned the River Rhine red, killed thousands of fish and sent acrid smoke over the city. It was one of Europe’s worst environmental disasters and it made headlines around the world.

Marcus Müller, head of canton Basel Country’s crisis squad, told Swiss public television SRF that both companies and communities are better prepared today.

“We’ve got leadership bodies at the company, town and cantonal levels. They’re specially trained to deal with nuclear, biological and chemical emergencies. That’s the big improvement since the Schweizerhalle incident,” he said.

Martin Forter, geographer and contamination expert, says most clean-up targets haven’t been met. What’s more, the danger is still there, though not so much in Basel – where the focus is now on pharmaceuticals rather than caustic chemical production.

“On account of globalisation, this type of dangerous production has been outsourced to India and China – and that’s where today’s ‘Schweizerhalles’ take place – with much bigger dimensions than in 1986,” Forter told SRF.

Thirty years ago, angry locals demanded action. In the end, however, just two firefighters were charged over the Rhine pollution resulting from their actions fighting the blaze. The Sandoz management was not held accountable.

But the company, which later merged with Ciba-Geigy to become Novartis, did pay CHF43 million ($49 million at the time) in compensation to Switzerland and the other affected Rhine nations of France, Germany and the Netherlands. It also gave CHF10 million to a Rhine fund for ecological research. By 2006, the Rhine was declared once again a “living river” by the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine. and agencies

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