Brandkatastrophe in Schweizerhalle 1986 - Rückblick und Bilanz
Background. On November 1st 1986, a fire at a Sandoz Ltd. storehouse at Schweizerhalle, an industrial area near Basel, Switzerland, resulted in a 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 tons 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 salmonides. The public and private reaction to the fire and the subsequent chemical spill was very strong. This catastrophe happened only a few months after the Chernobyl accident and destroyed the myth of the immunity of Switzerland.
Aim. This article reviews the damaging events of November 1986 and aims at striking the balance two decades later.
Results and Discussion. In the aftermath of this once-per-century accident, it was the aim was to gain increased knowledge and understanding in 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 organisations, chemical and biological monitoring, alert organisation, ecological damages, ecotoxicological effect assessment, recovery and alteration of river biology, return of the salmon, drinking water supplies, research programs, education of environmental scientists and visions for the future.
Conclusions. The catastrophic pollution of the Rhine in November 1986, and the obvious damages of the river biology, triggered significant progress 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 learned their lectures and proceeded accordingly.
Recommendations. Such a drastic acute contamination, as happened at Schweizerhalle in 1986, is clearly recognizable by the toxic effects. This led to long-term mitigation activities. However, also the less obvious effects of chronic water pollution should receive more attention as well as the on-going alteration of the biocenosis. A high water quality must be demanded in terms of using the Rhine water for drinking water supply. In that context, micropollutants should also be considered, and particular attention should be paid to emerging contaminants.
Perspectives. The big chemical storehouse fire of 1986 induced the transboundary cooperation and improved the willingness for international cooperation. Overall, the effects of the fire catastrophe are positive in terms of a long-term perspective. The whole-basin approach is, on a global basis, an example for other, even more heavily polluted river systems.