The Rhine red, the fish dead - the 1986 Schweizerhalle disaster; a retrospect and long-therm impact assessment
Background The November 1, 1986 fire at a Sandoz Ltd. storehouse at Schweizerhalle, an industrial area near Basel, Switzerland, resulted in chemical contamination of the environment. The storehouse, which was completely destroyed by the fire, contained pesticides, solvents, dyes, and various raw and intermediate materials. The majority of the approximately 1,250 t of stored chemicals was destroyed in the fire, but large quantities were introduced into the atmosphere, into the Rhine River through runoff of the fire-fighting water, and into the soil and groundwater at the site. The chemicals discharged into the Rhine caused massive kills of benthic organisms and fish, particularly eels and salmonids. Public and private reaction to the fire and subsequent chemical spill was very strong. This happened only a few months after the Chernobyl accident and it destroyed the myth of immunity of Switzerland regarding such catastrophes.
Aim This article reviews the damaging events of November 1986 and aims at striking stock two decades later.
Results and discussion In the aftermath of this once-per-century accident, the aim was to obtain new knowledge for the environmental sciences and to achieve progress for water pollution control issues. The following themes are discussed: mitigation measures by the chemical industry and by the governmental authorities, activities of environmental protection organizations, chemical and biological monitoring, alert organization, ecological damages, ecotoxicological effects assessment, recovery and alteration of the river biology, return of the salmon, drinking water supplies, research programs, education of environmental scientists, and visions for the future.
Conclusion The catastrophic pollution of the Rhine in November 1986 has triggered by the openly visible damages of the river biology that subsequently significant progress was made towards the prevention of such environmental catastrophes. The crucial risk reduction measures in the chemical industry, legal regulations and controls as well as chemical and biological monitoring of the river water quality were substantially improved. Politics and chemical industry have learned their lectures and have proceeded accordingly.
Recommendations A drastic acute contamination, as it has happened at Schweizerhalle in 1986, is clearly recognizable by the toxic effects, which it is causing. This can lead to mitigation activities, which are positive considering a long-term perspective. However, the less obvious effects of chronic water pollution should receive more attention as well as the ongoing alteration of the biocenosis. A high water quality must be demanded for using water from the Rhine to produce drinking water. In that context, micropollutants should also be considered and particular attention should be payed to emerging contaminants.
Perspectives The big chemical storehouse fire of 1986 had an important impact on the transboundary cooperation and has improved the willingness for international cooperation. The fire catastrophe of Schweizerhalle has triggered many activities in particular for the Rhine River. Overall, the effects are positive on the basis of a long-term perspective. The applied whole basin approach gives an example on a global basis for other river systems, which still are more heavily polluted.