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Complaints of Swiss Negligence, Lack of Warning

November 11, 1986

FRANKFURT, West Germany (AP) _ Common Market officials said Tuesday that Switzerland did not act promptly enough after a major chemical spill in the Rhine River.

In Bonn, West Germany, the environmentalist Greens party accused the Swiss company responsible of ignoring unsafe conditions at its plant.

West Germany announced that its huge chemical industry had agreed to doublecheck its own plant safety features following the Nov. 1 spill at the Sandoz chemical complex in Basel, Switzerland.

A day before the Sandoz spill, a neighboring plant owned by the giant Swiss chemical firm Ciba-Geigy leaked about 100 gallons of atrazine, a highly toxic agricultural chemical, into the Rhine, officials in Baden-Wuerttemberg state in West Germany said.

State Environment Minister Gerhard Weiser said that may have contributed to the massive kill of Rhine eels initially blamed on Sandoz.

Germain della Bianca, head of the Basel Water Protection Office, said Ciba- Geigy had reported its spill immediately. He said the small size of the leak made it a ″petty type of accident that occurs frequently.″

About 30 tons of highly toxic herbicides, pesticides and mercury poured into the Rhine Nov. 1 along with water used by Swiss firefighters to put out a chemical blaze at Sandoz.

A chemical slick 25 miles long drifted down the 820-mile Rhine through West German, French and Dutch territory over the next 10 days.

The toxic glob killed an estimated 500,000 Rhine fish and eels. French officials warned farmers to keep livestock away from the river.

In West Germany’s Rhineland, several towns had drinking water trucked in for days before state authorities lifted the emergency precaution Tuesday.

Common Market sources said that the West German, Dutch and French transport ministers complained Tuesday of Swiss footdragging in handling one of the worst environmental disasters in Europe in recent years.

Transport ministers of the 12-nation Common Market, meeting the organization’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, held a closed-door debate on Sandoz. Switzerland does not belong to the trading bloc.

Sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said France, West Germany and the Netherlands - which share most of the Rhine’s course from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea - complained that the Swiss failed to provide timely information on the spill to neighbors.

France and Baden-Wuerttemberg state plan to seek reparations from Switzerland for damage.

The West German, French, Dutch and Swiss environmental ministers will meet in Zurich on Wednesday, at Swiss government invitation, to discuss the spill’s impact and ways of improving cross-border warning systems.

Experts say the full impact of the chemical spill on the Rhine probably will not be known for years.

In Bonn on Tuesday, the Greens party said in a statement that insurance adjusters told Sandoz of serious deficiencies in its chemical safety practices as long ago as 1981, but the firm took no corrective action. It said that as a result, a Zurich insurance firm refused to renew its Sandoz coverage.

In Basel, Sandoz spokesman Edgar Fasel said the Zurich insurers’ report would have to be studied before Sandoz would comment, but he said the firm dropped the Zurich policy because a West German insurer offered a better deal.

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