France: Huge chemical depot fire in Normandy – greed and incompetence can kill!

Rouen school strike over the Lubrizol chemical depot fire

During the night of September 25th, a massive fire broke out in the depot of Lubrizol chemicals on the outskirts of Rouen, Normandy. There were no personnel at the depot and no deaths at the time of the explosion (if there had been constant surveillance of the condition of the storage tanks, as there used to be, there might have been no explosion at all!)

The catastrophic ‘accident’ produced a huge poisonous cloud which spread as far as the across the border with Belgium. This company is a sub-contractor for a conglomerate owned, since 2011, by billionaire, Warren Buffet – the third richest person in the world. The accident has uncovered both the extent of capitalist greed and the ineptitude in the state apparatus.

Lies of the state

Soon after three in the morning, the fire began to set off explosions and fireballs and produce thick black smoke. It took the fire brigades nearly 10 hours to put it out. Despite the obvious danger of the situation, no sirens were sounded or warnings given for more than four hours! So in the morning workers went about their business as usual – took their children to school and went to work, walking and driving through the stench and the smoke, despite the potential danger and with no information whatsoever about what to do and not to do.

Many who refused to go to their workplace – some located just a few meters away from the site – were forced to take a day from their regular holidays. Some were even threatened to be laid off if they did not show up to work. And this was with the approval of the local authorities who refused to declare a state of emergency, limit the traffic or close public buildings.

When they eventually addressed the public, their message was very reassuring but in complete opposition to what people were actually experiencing: serious headaches, sore eyes and vomiting. According to the authorities, everything was under control and there was “no serious danger”. But it took them a week to publish the list of chemicals that burned and then only a very vague one and only after 5,000 people had demonstrated to demand the truth.

Day after day, new lies and inconsistencies are revealed. For instance, it was first said that 5,000 tons of chemicals had burned but the authorities had to admit that it was probably more than twice that amount.

What is really striking is how complicit the company’s management and the state have been, so afraid are they that their mistakes and failures might be exposed in the full light of day (rules had even been bent recently  – at national government level – which allowed more of the inflammable chemicals to be stored at the Rouen site.)

This catastrophe has really demonstrated how much big business and bourgeois politicians work hand in hand to protect their interests, at our expense.

Profits before our security

The site was classified high-risk as it was used for storing dangerous chemicals. Austerity measures have impacted on the public organisations responsible for inspecting industrial risks. As a consequence controls and security checks have been more and more cut back, with fewer workers to do them.

It is still not clear where the Lubrizol fire started and what the risks were, considering the cocktail of chemicals that burned. It might even have been in an adjacent warehouse where Lubrizol also stored chemicals without permission. What is clear is that security measures have steadily declined for financial reasons -the pursuit of profit at all cost.

In a region which has so many high-risk chemical plants, it is a real disgrace that no serious emergency plan is ready in case of an accident.

They don’t care about us: we demand the truth!

A coalition of trade unions, left organisations and grass-roots organisations was launched to organise a campaign to demand the truth about this accident and force Lubrizol and the authorities to accept responsibility for all the health and environmental problems caused now and in the long term. Three demonstrations took place in the aftermath of the catastrophe, one which was more than 4,000 strong. A public meeting was planned and, with the help of comrades of Gauche Revolutionnaire (CWI), a teachers’ strike, supported by parents, was organised to demand real protection for workers and children.

All these actions have forced local and national authorities to release more information and put responsibility on Buffet’s company to pay for all the damages and cover compensation for all those affected by the explosion (in terms health, jobs etc.) Farmers are forbidden to sell their products until further notice (and yet the authorities say there is no danger to people’s health from breathing the fumes after the explosion!).They have been promised compensation for the production they have lost and Lubrizol is said to have contributed. What about the long-term effects on the soil, the water, the air?

The anger is very great and there is a need for a strong collective reaction. The legal, environmental and health consequences are still ahead of us, and we cannot count on the likes of Warren Buffet or Emmanuel Macron to take care of us. We helped launch the coalition and argue to develop action committees wherever possible to mobilise the working class and young people.

Our lives are not for sale: Warren Buffet must pay!

What has happened at Lubrizol is a warning that must be taken seriously; it could well happen again given with Macron’s totally pro-capitalist agenda.

We are demanding an independent inquiry on the causes and consequences of the accident. It has to be public and away from the bosses and their political accomplices. It needs to be elected and controlled by workers and their organisations,

We fully support the workers of the plant, who must not bear the cost of the company’s mistakes. They are already victims of bad working conditions. Their wages must be maintained as long it is not safe for them to go back to work and the inquiry into what happened is not finished and. A campaign for safe working conditions and decent wages for those who work for Lubrizol’s many sub-contractors must be conducted.

To reduce the risks of such accidents in the future, all high-risk plants should be nationalised under the democratic control and management of workers and their organisations. The workers and the communities where these companies are located must take really seriously the health, environmental and social issues and demand policies in the interests of the majority, not the handful of multi-billionaires like Warren Buffet. Without the pressure to cut corners in the interest of making massive profits, they could devise the best ways to organise production with the minimum risks and the maximum protection of workers and the environment.

This would require a united struggle of workers and their organisations to end the deadly system of capitalism with its private ownership of companies and establish a socialist world…a safe world for all to live in!





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October 2019