Newsletter No 1 March 2011

The Moerdijk Fire: one week of intensive press contacts

Jacob de Boer

moerdijkThe fire in the chemical warehouse of ChemiePack in Moerdijk caused a lot of contacts between me, on behalf of IVM, and newspapers, radio and television. There was a clear need for understandable information on the possible consequences of this fire and, because toxic compounds and their combustion products were involved, IVM was approached for this task. 

 At 5 January, the Year of Chemistry started entirely in style with a big fire in the chemicals warehouse of ChemiePack in Moerdijk. Soon after the start of the fire I was approached by RTL4 to comment in the program Editie.NL on the possible consequences of the fire for people living in neighboring villages. The problem was that it was unclear how much and what type of chemicals were stored. There were rumors on lots of sulphuric acid in tanks and explosions were heard from time to time. A few hours after the fire broke out, it started to rain, which caused a risk of aggressive acidic rain. As with all fires, dioxin formation needed to be considered. It lasted until Sunday (!) before the lists of chemicals stored at ChemiePack were released. Meanwhile, at Saturday, I was interviewed at TROS radio and in Nieuwsuur and those interviews probably helped to release that information. The list of chemicals were rather unclear with no CAS numbers, but in most cases trade names that were difficult to interpret. The sulphuric acid quantity appeared to be very limited but instead equally aggressive bases were present, which caused a pH of around 12 at the place of the fire. For comments on the list I gave a live interview in the Radio 1 Journaal from an Amsterdam studio at Monday morning at 7.00 am after a slippery tour over icy roads in Spaarnwoude to be in time for the broadcasting. That was two after Sunday night interviews until  11.30 pm (!) at home, which were broadcasted the entire Monday. An RIVM report on dioxin and other contaminant levels was presented in a press conference at Tuesday afternoon, and I was asked to comment live from Hilversum in the 6.00 pm Journaal at the Radio and in Nieuwsuur. As the presentation by the local mayors was rather poor and relevant information was overlooked I was invited again in Nieuwsuur at Wednesday evening.

 In fact the main issue of the fire and follow-up was communication. Local mayors are not prepared to explain chemical details to a worried audience. RIVM reports with a layout and structure developed in the 1960’s are not suitable to place on a website for the general public as they lack explanatory text. Where the ministers called for complete transparency, their civil servants could never meet the requirements for that in a hectic atmosphere. It means that public relation officers of RIVM and ministries face a serious task to improve their communication in modern times where twitter and other fast communication means dominate over paper reports.

 Thanks to the favorable southern wind the consequences of the fire for the local population were very limited. In fact, the only persons exposed to dangerous vapours were those who were close to the fire for several hours, such as traffic controllers, the fire brigade, volunteers, and journalists. The farmer north of the Hollands Diep complained about sick cows, and initial high lead levels indicated possible health risks. However, later analyses showed more reliable data which were all much lower than initially reported. Other weather conditions could have caused a real disaster, in particular for the people living in the village of Moerdijk. This stresses the need for a more frequent control of fire safety in chemical warehouses by inspections, as was already proposed by a VROM report of September 2010. It was further underlined by another fire in the Amsterdam harbour in February. There are several hundreds of this type of chemicals warehouses in the Netherlands and according to the VROM report over 50% is not inspected at all after they have been given a permit.

 The Amsterdam fire took me another day of commenting to the media and as they have apparently ‘found’ me now, my problem is where to register my time at IVM for this purpose, as, apart from the occasional bottle of wine, funding was not provided for this work.

Contact: Jacob de Boer