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A guide to major chemical disasters worldwide

OPPAU, GERMANY - September 21, 1921


Workers at BASF's Oppau site, in Germany, decided that the best course of action to loosen a 4,500
tonne mound of ammonium nitrate (AN) and ammonium sulfate that had solidified was to detonate
several dynamite charges.

Unfortunately, the use of this tried-and-true method was not suited to the explosive nature of AN,
resulting in a massive 125m (410ft)-long and 19m-deep crater and the deaths of more than 500 people.

The accident destroyed around 80% of the homes in Oppau and ripped the roofs off houses as far as
25km (10 miles) away.

AN has since been responsible for numerous explosions in the chemical sector globally, as well as many
acts of terrorism. Strict measures have been imposed to ensure the safe handling and storage of the
fertilizer.

TEXAS CITY, TEXAS, US - April 16, 1947


On the morning of April 16, 1947, a French ship - The Grandcamp - was being loaded with ammonium
nitrate (AN) fertilizer. With over 2,000 tonnes of AN onboard, a fire started in the hold. Not wanting to
damage the cargo, the captain refused to use water on the flames and opted instead to control the fire
using the steam system.

The heat intensified and the ship exploded, killing crewmembers and showering onlookers with shrapnel.
The blast was heard over 150 miles (240km) away.

A 15ft (4.6m) wave swept a barge ashore, buildings were destroyed - including a Monsanto chemical
plant nearby - and the ship's anchor was found more than a mile away. There were around 3,500 injuries
and 576 people were killed.

TEXAS CITY, TEXAS, US - March 23, 2005


The 2005 disaster at UK oil major BP's Texas City refinery, in Texas, US, was considered the nation's
worst industrial disaster in 15 years.

A series of explosions occurred when a hydrocarbon isomerization unit was restarted and a distillation
tower flooded with hydrocarbons. As a result, 15 were killed and another 180 were injured. BP admitted
to charges and accepted fines last year, with BP America chairman Bob Malone conceding that the
company was guilty of a felony "for failing to have adequate written procedures for maintaining the
ongoing mechanical integrity of process equipment at the Texas City refinery.

"If our approach to process safety and risk management had been more disciplined and comprehensive,
this tragedy could have been prevented," he said.

JILIN CITY, CHINA - November 13, 2005


A series of explosions rocked China-based Jilin Petrochemical's 70,000 tonne/year aniline complex in
Northeast China, killing five and injuring 70. Benzene also leaked into the Songhua river and caused
millions of people to go without drinking water, with many fleeing their homes.
Initial investigations suggested the explosion occurred after operators attempted to unblock a
nitrobenzene rectification tower. Jilin's Bureau of Production Safety Supervision and Administration
concluded that a valve was left open, causing temperatures to rise rapidly.

Nearby equipment and storage tanks containing nitrobenzene, benzene and nitric acid feedstocks also
caught fire and exploded. Water and electricity supplies had to be cut off as local residents reported tap
water turning red or yellow. There were also concerns that water supplies to some Russian towns could
be affected by the contamination of the river.

BHOPAL, INDIA - December 3, 1984


A gas leak at US-based Union Carbide's pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, is cited as one of the chemical
industry's greatest tragedies.

On December 3, 1984, methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the facility during the early hours of the
morning while local residents slept. Around 2,000 people died immediately, with another 8,000 dying
later.

The initial investigation suggested that large volumes of water had entered the chemical tank, which
caused a chemical reaction and led to the leak. The incident highlighted the problem of urbanization and
having a plant located near a densely populated area. In 2001, Union Carbide became a wholly owned
subsidiary of US giant Dow Chemical.

FLIXBOROUGH, UK - June 1, 1974


In 1974, cyclohexane vapor leaked from ruptured pipework at the Nypro (UK) site at Flixborough. This
resulted in an explosion that killed 28 people and injured 36.

Offsite, 53 injuries were reported. Property in the surrounding area was also severely damaged.

The disaster led to the Health and Safety at Work Act, introduced the same year, when the Health and
Safety Executive was also established.

SEVESO, ITALY - July 10, 1976


On July 10, 1976, in a small Italian town north of Milan, a reactor at the ICMESA chemical plant
overheated, resulting in an explosion and the first, and highest known exposure, to dioxins in a
residential area. A toxic cloud containing 2,4,5-Trichlorophenol - used to make pesticides and antiseptics
- spread to the densely populated city of Seveso.

This became the catalyst for the Seveso Directive, in 1982, which has since undergone numerous
amendments. It was replaced by the Seveso II directive in 1996.

TOULOUSE, FRANCE - September 21, 2001


Some seven years later, there is still no official ruling on the cause of the 2001explosion at Atofina's
Grande Paroisse fertilizer plant in Toulouse, France. A report is now expected toward the end of this year
or the beginning of 2009.

Around 300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate (AN) exploded, destroying the site and wrecking buildings 3km
(1 mile) away in the city center.
The blast left a crater 50m (164 feet) wide and 10m deep. It was responsible for the death of 30 people,
and 10,000 injuries.

SCHWEIZERHALLE, SWITZERLAND - November 1, 1986


Water used to extinguish a major fire at the Sandoz chemical factory in 1986 washed chemicals into the
river Rhine, one of Europe's busiest waterways. The spill caused severe pollution, which took years to
eradicate, and killed an estimated 500,000 fish.

The incident highlighted the need for antipollution legislation in Europe. Soil was excavated from the area
and decontaminated to ensure there was no risk to the groundwater.

The German chemical company also developed a new framework for warehouse safety, including
segregated storage for different risk categories of chemicals, and fire measures such as retention basins
for run-off water.

ELK RIVER CHEMICAL SPILL - 2014

Map of West Virginia counties affected by the 2014 Elk River Chemical Spill
The Elk River chemical spill occurred on January 9, 2014 when crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol
(MCHM) was released from a Freedom Industries facility into the Elk River, in Charleston West Virginia.

EXXON VALDEZ OIL SPILL - MARCH 1989


The Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker bound for Long Beach, California, hit Prince William Sound's Bligh Reef,
dumping an estimated minimum 10.8 million US gallons (40.9 million litres, or 250,000 barrels) of crude
oil into the sea. It is considered to be one of the most devastating human-caused environmental
disastersever to occur. 100,000 to as many as 250,000 seabirds died, as well as at least 2,800 sea
otters, approximately 12 river otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles, and 22 orcas, and billions of
salmon and herring eggs were destroyed. Overall reductions in population have been seen in various
ocean animals, including stunted growth in pink salmon populations. Sea otters and ducks also showed
higher death rates in following years, partially because they ingested prey from contaminated soil and
also from ingestion of oil residues on their hair/feathers due to grooming. The effects of the spill continue
to be felt 20 years later.
BAIA MARE CYANIDE SPILL – JANUARY 2000
This spill took place in Baia Mare, Romania. The accident, called the worst environmental disaster in
Europe since Chernobyl, was a release of 100,000 tons of cyanide-contaminated water into the
rivers Someş, Tisza and Danube by an Aurul mining company due to a reservoir breach. Although no
human fatalities were reported, the leak killed up to 80 percent of aquatic life in some of the affected
rivers.

AJKA ALUMINA PLANT ACCIDENT – 2010


The Ajka alumina sludge spill was an industrial accident at a caustic waste reservoir chain of the Ajkai
Timföldgyár alumina plant in Ajka, Veszprém County, in western Hungary.

On 4 October 2010, the northwestern corner of the dam of reservoir no.10 collapsed, freeing
approximately one million cubic metres (35 million cubic feet) of liquid waste from red mudlakes. The
mud was released as a 1–2 m (3–7 ft) wave, flooding several nearby localities, including the village
of Kolontár and the town of Devecser.

Ten people died, and 150 people were injured. About 40 square kilometres (15 sq mi) of land were
initially affected. The spill reached the Danube on 7 October 2010

GAOQIAO GAS WELL BURST – 2003


Gaoqiao is a town located in a valley in Kai County, in the northeast of Chongqing municipality in
Southwest China.

On 23 December 2003 at 21:15, a gas well burst and released highly toxic hydrogen sulfide. According
to China Daily, 233 people died and at least 9,000 were injured.

The well belonged to PetroChina's Southwest Oil and Gas Field Branch. In 2007, Chevron
Corporation and China National Petroleum Corporation signed a contract to share production in
Chuandongbei, with Chevron getting 49 percent of the venture, operating the project and supplying the
technology.