Tracing the Implications of Things

            Some lessons to be learned from this story

Rhine River, Switzerland, 1986

The cause of the disaster in the Rhine River can be traced to failures on the part of Sandoz.  A warehouse built for one purpose was misused to store dangerous chemicals, with no heat sensors or sprinklers.  Careless packaging procedures allowed the Prussian blue material to catch on fire, and the company failed to install adequate catch basins to collect runoff from the firefight. But it was not just Sandoz and not just the authorities in Basel that had to deal with the consequences.  The people of Basel had to endure the acrid plume of smoke from the fire, or get out of town for several days.  All the people living along the Rhine — in Switzerland, France, West Germany, and Netherlands — had to suffer the effects of the red plume of toxic chemicals flowing down the Rhine: a massive fish kill, disruption of public water supplies, destruction of tourism.  The Rhine effectively was shut down for several weeks.

The people downstream were not warned for several days by the Swiss authorities. The Swiss could not tell anyone what was in the plume of contaminants because not even Sandoz knew for three days what it had stored in the warehouse.   Adding insult to injury, the company and some authorities were dismissive of the concerns of the affected public.  When the company and the industry of which it is a part dominate a local economy, public authorities often side with the company when criticisms are leveled at the company.  The company’s dismissiveness comes easy when there has been little oversight or enforcement and polluters believe they can act with impunity.

The public at one time may have been timid in demanding answers and accountability from polluters.  By the end of the century the timidity gave way to confrontation.  The anger of those affected by the spill triggered widespread protests, ranging from the Chaotics’ violence, to spitting on officials, to pelting by dead eels, to mock funerals.  Just as the consequences were felt across a number of borders, the protests spread across those same borders.  These protests grew naturally from an awareness in the last quarter of the century of the fragile nature of our natural resources and of the need to begin to actively protect those resources.  An international commission, led by the Dutch, with the support of Greenpeace and Dutch environmentalists, had begun to clean up Europe’s sewer, but it was the Sandoz spill that galvanized international efforts to reclaim the Rhine from the legacy of industrial discharges.  The earlier channeling of the Rhine’s natural flow may have been justified by the greater commercial good, but it was the Sandoz spill that focused the attention of the public on the Rhine as a natural resource deserving of protection for the greater public good.  With widespread public support, the international public authorities were empowered to adopt the Rhine Action Plan and begin the long process of reclaiming the Rhine.


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