Rhône-Poulenc reacts to Swedish toxic accident

Company recalls toxic sealant, accepts shared responsibility for environmental "catastrophe"

French chemical giant Rhône-Poulenc told ENDS Daily today that it accepted a share of responsibility for an accident caused by leaking sealant manufactured by the firm that has left Swedish fish and cattle dead and workers poisoned (ENDS Daily 21 October).

Rhône-Poulenc has suspended further sales of its Rhoca Gil chemical sealant and recalled existing stocks pending the outcome of a police investigation into the incident at Hallandsåsen in south-west Sweden.

Swedish environment minister Anna Lindh recently blamed the contractor Skanska, the Swedish railway authority and Rhône-Poulenc equally for the accident, which she described as an "environmental catastrophe". During a visit to Hallandsåsen last week she questioned whether the chemical manufacturer had done enough to prevent it.

A spokesperson for Rhône-Poulenc told ENDS Daily that the company had provided six training sessions for Skanska employees as well as giving technical briefings to managers before Rhoca Gil was used. Despite this it was evident that "something was not done properly in its application". A Rhône-Poulenc press statement points to an admission by Skanska that it had "made mistakes" in using the chemical.

According to Swedish press reports, however, Skanska employees have complained that they did not appreciate the hazards of using Rhoca Gil even after the training from Rhône-Poulenc.

While stressing there was nothing wrong with its product, and while denying liability for the accident, the company said it was not seeking to avoid a share of the responsibility. "We are taking responsibility. It is our product that has been used. We do not say it is not our business. If they had used another product there would not have been acrylamide in the water."

The company described its decision to recall Rhoca Gil as "standard procedure" and a "precautionary measure". Rhône-Poulenc has annual sales of the sealant worth US$2-3m (Ecu1.8-2.7m) and says the product is not an important one.

According to Rhône-Poulenc, Rhoca Gill has been used without problems for around 20 years, including in tunnels similar to the one being built at Hallandsåsen. But the firm indicated that it is developing more environmentally-friendly alternatives and it conceded that several alternative chemicals are already available on the market. A spokesperson for the Swedish railway authority could not comment on why Rhoca Gil had been chosen, but conceded that "cost is always one of the factors involved".

* We incorrectly reported on 21 October that 15 tonnes of Rhoca Gill had been used in the Hallandsåsen tunnel. The Swedish railway authority has confirmed that about 1,400 tonnes of the sealant were involved.

Follow Up:
Rhône-Poulanc, tel: +33 1 55 71 85 11.

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