On 27 July 2021 around 9:40 am, a major explosion at the 480 hectare Chempark in Leverkusen, Germany, shocked the local population within a radius of 40km who heard and felt the detonation – and even beyond that, as the toxic plume was still visible in Dortmund, nearly 80 km away. The explosion killed 5 employees and injured 31 workers, with two persons still being missing. Due to the possible release of dioxins many were reminded of the Seveso accident of 1976 in Italy. The Leverkusen accident is a tragic reminder of the continuous need to prevent major industrial accidents and, should they occur, to be well-prepared to quickly respond to them.
The cause of the detonation at the waste disposal plant in Leverkusen is currently being investigated. According to information available so far, chemical waste – tanks of chlorinated solvents – exploded and triggered a fire. The plume which reached the surrounding areas and population was measured for possible dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), both of which are carcinogenic. In the meantime, residents were requested to keep doors and windows shut, to switch off air conditioning using outside air, to refrain from visiting playing grounds to avoid touching the sooty particles, and they were warned not to eat the vegetables grown in their garden. Whilst this accident fortunately did not have any transboundary consequences, an accident in the Chempark – a hazardous activity under the UNECE Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents – could cause a release of toxic substances into the nearby Rhine river, leading to possible transboundary water pollution.
The continuous prevention of industrial accidents, including those with potential transboundary effects, is of crucial importance. Operators must take appropriate safety measures which are to be checked and enforced by the respective competent authorities. One of the challenges that many UNECE countries face is growing urbanization, as cities slowly move closer to hazardous industrial facilities initially envisaged at their outskirts, such as in Leverkusen, where affected residents find themselves within less than one or two kilometers of the Chempark. In order to avoid and minimize the impacts of accidents on the surrounding population, safety distances need to be considered in land-use planning and decision-making on the siting of new hazardous industrial facilities, or the significant modification of existing ones.
Implementing existing legal instruments, such as the UNECE Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents and the EU Seveso-III Directive (Directive 2012/18/EU) is crucial so as to ensure continuous safety for the population and protect their surrounding environment which provides for their habitat, recreation and food. The UNECE Industrial Accidents Convention supports member States in exchanging experiences on accident prevention and the mitigation of their effects, through seminar, workshops and the collection of good practices, such as the Information Repository on Land-Use Planning and Industrial Safety. As a Centre of Excellence for guidance development, such as the UNECE Guidance on Land-Use Planning, the Siting of Hazardous Activities and related Safety Aspects, it also provides support to countries in implementation and capacity-development.
When prevention fails, countries must be prepared to act quickly and respond: testing for substances and monitoring the surrounding environments to assess a need for decontamination or further measures to protect both human health and biodiversity; cooperation and communication between the different authorities and the affected population, and with other countries, in the case of transboundary effects. To communicate quickly and efficiently in case of a transboundary threat or accident, UNECE member States can use the Industrial Accidents Notification (IAN) System to warn potentially affected countries about an accident or request mutual assistance. UNECE regularly organizes testing exercises for countries to be well-prepared in case of a real event; countries have committed to conducting such tests at the sub-regional level, too. The last subregional early-warning exercise in the IAN System was organized in September 2020 by Belarus, involving Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. The Leverkusen accident prompted France to review and test its national accident notification process and review related responsibilities in case of a transboundary accident, further to planning a transboundary exercise with neighbouring countries.
Notes to editors
Since its signature in 1992 and entry into force in 2000, the UNECE Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents provides a legal framework for countries to develop and strengthen prevention of, preparedness for and response to industrial accidents, including such accidents with possible transboundary effects. Currently, the Convention has 41 Parties in Western, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The EU Seveso-III-Directive (2012/18/EU) is the main legislative instrument implementing the UNECE Industrial Accidents Convention in EU law. Annex I of the Seveso Directive and the Convention are aligned, covering the same hazardous substances with “upper-tier” requirements, which define respective hazardous activities falling under the treaties’ scope.