AZF, twenty years later: where is the industrial risk in France?

On the morning of September 21, 2001, the explosion of several hundred tons of ammonium nitrate stored on the site of the AZF fertilizer plant in Toulouse, resulted in the death of 31 people and caused 2,500 injuries and heavy material damage. The explosion, corresponding to an earthquake of magnitude 3.4 on the Richter scale, was perceived up to 75 kilometers. Since this tragedy, risk prevention has been strengthened, without however avoiding other major accidents, such as the fire at the Lubrizol plant in Rouen in 2019.

Nearly 500,000 classified installations

Installations classified for the protection of the environment (ICPE) group together all industrial or agricultural operations that may present risks for the environment (pollution, nuisances), safety or health. The legislation provides for a ranking of sites depending on the importance of the risks.

  • Around 450,000 installations, the least polluting or dangerous, are subject to declaration. All sectors of activity are concerned: agriculture, agrifood, industry, waste treatment, etc. It depends on the nature and quantity of substances used or stored. They can be wine growers producing more than 500 hectoliters per year or printing workshops.
  • 22,213 installations (farms, service stations, fuel product warehouses) subject to the registration regime have been authorized for commissioning by prefectural decree.
  • 22,566 installations with “Serious risks or nuisances for the environment” are subject to the authorization regime. An impact and hazard study demonstrating the acceptability of the risk must be produced by the operator and the final authorization for commissioning is only issued after the implementation of measures specified by the prefectural decree.
  • 1,365 the most dangerous installations (refineries, chemical factories, oil depots and even explosives depots) are Seveso classified. The European directive was put in place after a serious leak in an Italian chemical plant near the town of Seveso in 1976. The latest version, Seveso 3, which entered into force in France in 2015, distinguishes 725 “high threshold” installations and 640 “low threshold” installations, depending on the quantity of hazardous materials present.
  • Nuclear installations are not affected by this directive because they are placed under the control of the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN).

The geographical distribution of these installations is the result of two centuries of industrial development linked to the large settlement areas; the Paris basin and the course of the Seine to Rouen, the Lille metropolitan area, Lyon and the Rhône valley, as well as the region of Marseille and the Berre pond. Today, 2.5 million people live less than a kilometer from a Seveso-classified installation (including 1.1 million for “high threshold” sites), and 663,500 within 500 meters (277,000 for “high threshold” sites).

Legislation toughened after AZF

According to Patrick Chaskiel, professor emeritus at Toulouse-III University and specialist in technological risks, “There is a before and an after AZF in industrial risk management”. In a very direct way, the government closed, in the name of the precautionary principle, a phosgene production workshop of the SNPE, a factory close to the AZF site, for safety reasons, but it is above all, according to this specialist. , “External pressure – from elected officials, local or environmental associations or the State – which has led to a hardening of legislation and prevention on the part of companies”.

The disaster led to the development of the risk law, known as the “Bachelot law”, of July 30, 2003, which strengthens the means of controlling the installations and institutes the implementation of technological risk prevention plans (PPRT). However, these plans are based on risk probability calculations based on accidents or events that have already occurred, “Which assumes that what has happened is sufficient to imagine what may happen in the future”, shade Patrick Chaskiel.

Article reserved for our subscribers Read also The Senate report on the Lubrizol fire “questions modern industrial organization”

Waste, chemicals and agrifood

According to last inventory from the Ministry of Ecological Transition on technological incidents and accidents, accidentology is down in 2020 – a year marked by two confinements and activity restrictions – with 74 accidents in Seveso facilities, compared to 79 in 2019 and 106 in 2018 There is also a decline in accidents occurring in all classified installations (excluding Seveso), with 255 accidents last year compared to 372 in 2019 and 334 in 2018.

Five sectors of activity concentrated more than two thirds of accidents in 2020. At the top, the waste and wastewater sector accounts for 22% of accidents, followed by the chemical and pharmaceutical industry (16%), the food industry ( 12%), agriculture and livestock (11%) and metallurgy (8%).

Seven very serious accidents in twenty years

Thomas Le Roux, historian, estimated in 2019, in a forum at World, “That in dangerous industry, the accident is not exceptional, it is the norm” and that the regulation did not sufficiently protect the population. Patrick Chaskiel insists for his part on the fact that the “Prevention is never enough, because safety has no limits”.

While no accident has caused as many deaths as that of AZF in the last twenty years, there have been six other accidents reaching the highest levels of severity in Seveso installations in France, including the explosion of the plant. Lubrizol.

Leave a Comment