Head of US Chemical Firm Grilled Over French Factory Blaze

Black smoke is pictured after a fire broke at the Lubrizol chemical plant in Rouen, Normandy, on Sept. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Stephanie Peron)

(CN) – The CEO of Ohio-based chemical giant Lubrizol appeared before both houses of the French Parliament on Tuesday to face questions about a factory fire in Normandy last month that forced locals to stay indoors.

Speaking in English, Eric Schnur told the French politicians, “We want to be good neighbors, we want to help,” when questioned about what the company was planning to do for the victims of the fire in the northern city of Rouen.

In the early morning hours of Sept. 26, a fire broke out at the Lubrizol chemical factory in Rouen, a port city of around 100,000 people on the River Seine and capital of the region of Normandy. Some 5,000 tons of chemicals burned in the blaze that spread to neighboring warehouses.

No one was injured in the fire, which took 130 firefighters to extinguish, but Rouen residents have since complained of ailments including headaches, diarrhea, and vomiting.

The factory manufactures a variety of chemicals, including dispersants, antifreeze and engine lubricants.

Schnur first appeared Tuesday morning before an information mission at the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament. In the afternoon, he moved on to the upper house, to appear before the Senate Committee of Inquiry.

It is unclear how the fire started, but the company said in a statement that surveillance video and eyewitnesses suggest that “the origin of the fire is external to Lubrizol and that the fire unfortunately spread on our site.”

Schnur repeated that assertion Tuesday, telling French lawmakers, “All the information we have indicates that the fire broke out outside our facilities, but we are waiting to know exactly the source and the cause.”

Through the fire was contained, smoke traveled for miles. French authorities temporarily closed schools in 11 nearby towns and asked people to stay inside for all but essential travel.

As a precaution, agricultural officials banned the harvest of food products in the area after the fire. French Minister of Agriculture Didier Guillaume has estimated the financial loss at between 40 and 50 million euros, or about $45 to $55 million.

Schnur assured the National Assembly that Lubrizol would compensate for the loss.

Local residents have expressed dissatisfaction with how the incident has been handled. French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe traveled to the region the day after the fire to reassure residents that the area was safe.

“The smells were noxious but not dangerous,” he told residents. France has both a prime minister and a president.

Residents had complained of a “strong, nauseating odor.” They didn’t find the prime minister’s comments reassuring and many are concerned about the immediate and long-term health effects of the smoke and soot. Several hundred of them marched on a town hall meeting in last month chanting, “We want the truth.”

“I have the impression that not all tests have been carried out, and that there are products that nobody is talking about that should be discussed, such as dioxins, asbestos, and heavy metals,” said Corinne Lepage, the leader of the French environmental group Respire.

The Lubrizol facility is one of several thousand high-risk industrial sites in Europe that is governed under the Seveso Directive. Named for the Italian town which was devastated by an industrial accident in 1976, the directive requires companies that manufacture or store large quantities of dangerous chemicals to follow strict labeling, storage, and maintenance procedures. There are no allegations that Lubrizol was not adhering to the rules.

The fire wasn’t the first time an incident occurred at the Lubrizol factory in Rouen. In 2013, there was a gas leak that resulted in nearby residents suffering from chest pains, coughing and vomiting.

The cleanup of the facility has already begun and is expected to take two months. The National Assembly will continue its inquiry with more hearings Wednesday.

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