Basel, Switzerland November 1986

Basel, Switzerland November 1986 – Causes, Consequences and Prevention Background of the Accident On 1st Nov 1986 at 00:19 hours a huge fire was discovered at Sandoz warehouse in Schweizerhalle near Basel, Switzerland. The warehouse contained 1300 tons of organic chemicals for agricultural use. There was an estimated 20,000m3 of water used to extinguish the fire. This resulted in around 30 tonne of toxic agro-chemicals being washed into the River Rhine through drains and seep into surrounding soil with highly contaminated firewater.

Within 10 days of the incident the pollution had travelled the length of the Rhine turning it red and into the North Sea. The River Rhine is an important central European River with many bordering countries. Causes & Management The cause of this fire is not yet clear but it is doubted that there was a leak present in the sacks or drums where the toxic materials were stored which would have resulted in a potential explosive atmosphere.

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There were no automatic sprinklers or smoke detectors in the warehouse which could have controlled or raised an alarm to control the fire before it rapidly spread throughout the building. There was a system present which monitored the temperature and was suppose to activate flashing lights and extra precautions when temperatures exceeded 25? C. This suggests that this system was not working correctly at the time of the industrial fire. The poor early warning systems in Sandoz contributed to the rapid uncontrolled spread of fire and in turn the amount of water required in extinguishing the fire.

Swiss government agencies and insurance companies had approved the storage of flammable liquids in containers stacked to a height of 10m in the building with peak height of 12m. Four days before the incident there was a routine inspection carried out and West German, Dutch and French senior officials blamed the Swiss for negligence with dealing with disaster. This disaster happened in the early hours of the morning which may suggest there was less supervision at Sandoz Ltd. The deficient safety management practices within Sandoz played a role in the consequences of the accident.

The decision to use foam to tackle the fire was ineffective which gave rise to time for propagation of the fire and the amount of water required to extinguish it. The lack of a firewater retention facility was the main cause of the consequences of the spill, as if there had been a safety precaution in place to hold the water used to fight the fire, the pollution of the River Rhine would have been very minor. Effects One of the major effects of the accident was that it caused several tones of highly toxic chemicals into the nearby River Rhine turning it red.

The chemicals were washed into the waterways via the water used to fight the fire. This led to the spread of pollution throughout the length of the Rhine and within ten days had entered the North Sea. This killed an estimated half a million of fish and wiped out some species completely. Another 270 tonnes of eels were estimated to be killed also. About thirty tones of pesticide were released into Western Europe’s most important waterway, as it flows through four countries – Switzerland, Germany, France and Holland – before entering into the North Sea.

Ten years of thorough work on cleaning up the Rhine because of pollution from industrial expansion were undone while fish vanished and it was too dangerous to swim in. Local residents were woken by the sirens warning them of the disaster while fourteen people, including one of the firemen fighting the blaze, were treated in hospital after inhaling the fumes. The spillage led to a public uproar resulting in the Rhine Action Programme of 1987, also known as ‘Salmon 2000’ as one of its targets were to see the return of Salmon by 2000.

This arrangement gained a fifty percent reduction in pollution by nitrates and phosphorus in the river and some other pollution types were reduced by eighty to hundred percent. The industries around Basel have increased their safety measures because of the spill including a trap to catch firewater. European Legislation. Under Regulation 8 of the EC (Control of Accident Hazards Involving Dangerous Substances) Regulations 2006 Sandoz would have identified major accident hazards on site which would have prevented a leak occurring in the storage area by providing all necessary precautions to comply with the Regulations.

Under Regulation 9 Sandoz would have taken all necessary precautions to prevent the accident from happening by monitoring and checking the containers for storing hazardous materials for any corrosion or leaks that could lead to a potential explosion, fire or pollution. They could have limited the consequences of the fire by having a firewater retention facility in place to hold the firewater used therefore preventing environmental pollution and monitoring their safety measures such as smoke detectors and automatic sprinklers regularly to ensure the minimisation of effects to the environment and people.

Regulation 9 (2) would have required Sandoz to assess the extent and severity of potential major accidents on site which could have reduced the amount of pollution that occurred. Sandoz would have been required to provide and maintain installations (e. g. sprinklers and maintenance of drums) and safe systems of work (e. g. limited access into storage area and other potential explosive areas). According to the Regulation 10 Sandoz must prepare a major accident prevention policy, which would have set out the manner for the fire to be prevented in the first instance.

This policy would have ensured a high level of management and supervision which would have prevented carelessness and lack of facilities contributing to the fire. Under Regulation 12 Sandoz would have prepared and reviewed a safety report for the company which would have identified all hazardous substances stored on site and may have given rise to the identification of a potential fire within the storage area. Under Regulations 15 & 16 should they have been in effect, Sandoz would have had internal and external emergency plans in place which were reviewed and tested to ensure they were adequate.

This would have provided the employees, surrounding public and authority with a warning of the accident at an early stage which would have controlled the fire by acting on an agreed plan leading to less severe consequences. Conclusion The industrial fire which happened in Sandoz storehouse introduced a large quantity of chemicals into the atmosphere, soil, groundwater and Rhine River causing significant effect on people and the environment. The 30 tonnes of chemicals released into the Rhine led to a huge number of living organisms being killed (about half a million of fish and 220 tonnes of eels).

This major accident could have been prevented or more adequately controlled, should there have been the E. C. (Control of Accident Hazards Involving Dangerous Substances) Regulations, 2006 in place. It would have provided maintenance on pipes , drums, bunds etc. which would have identified any hazards potentially leading to the major accident. If Sandoz provided firewater retention facility the major accident would not have polluted the Rhine as it did. The contaminated firewater which washed the chemicals into the river would have been safely stored in this facility preventing the catastrophic effect this accident had on the Rhine.

Therefore the compliance with the European Regulations and Seveso II Directive is vital to facilities where dangerous substances are stored in substantial amounts. References European Communities ‘Control of Major Accident Hazards Involving Dangerous Substances’ Regulations, 2006. Seveso II Directive (2003/105/EC) Park Citiy Daily News, 1986, Rhine River chemical slick ecological disaster, 12 Nov. BBC News, 1986, Chemical spill turns Rhine red, 1 Nov. Zalosh, R. G. , 2003, Industrial fire protection engineering. New York: Wiley.