Enschede disaster prompts Seveso law rethink

European Commission set to push for lower thresholds for storage of explosive materials

The European Commission is considering an overhaul of EU law on hazardous industrial plants after the massive and lethal explosion and fire at a fireworks factory in the Dutch town of Enschede at the weekend.

A Commission official described the conflagration, in which at least 20 people died and a further 600 were wounded, as probably the worst industrial accident in western Europe in 25 years. He added that a speedy revision of the EU's Seveso II directive on hazardous installations was now likely. Seveso II entered into force only last April, replacing an original 1982 law, named after a notorious Italian accident in 1976. Ironically, the Netherlands is one of only four EU countries not currently subject to infringement proceedings for failure to transpose the directive into national law (ENDS Daily 31 January).

A preliminary report by the Dutch authorities pointed to a number of irregularities over the running of the fireworks factory, as well as its location within a sizeable population centre. These include failure to notify the presence of magnesium, which adversely affected fire fighting efforts. Along with massive damage to property, the report said some ecological damage had taken place within the region. But it discounted early worries about asbestos pollution resulting from the fire.

According to the report, the factory was classified as falling within the lower tier of risk identified under Seveso II, whose range extends to storage and manufacture of explosives for the first time. Had it contained more than 200 tonnes of explosive material, this would have triggered a requirement for a full safety report to the competent authorities when the directive takes full force in 2003.

It will be "very hard now to resist public pressure to downgrade [the 200 tonne] threshold," the European Commission official said. The Commission is already working on two other possible revisions, concerning thresholds for substances dangerous to the environment and carcinogens.

The Dutch authorities, meanwhile, have announced a full inquiry into the accident and promised to make this freely available to other European governments. Visiting Enschede yesterday, Commission president Romano Prodi promised financial aid, as well as support from the European Civil Protection Network. Total damage has been estimated at more than euros 100m.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111; and see Commission press release IP/OO/489, dated 17/5/00 on Rapid and information on the Enschede disaster from Enschede municipality, and the Dutch for Fire Service and Disaster Management. See also the full text of the Seveso II directive.

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