Lethal chlorine gas escapes from Czech chemical plant after floods

CZECH REPUBLIC: Fears of severe environmental pollution in central Europe were growing last night as it became clear that recent…

CZECH REPUBLIC: Fears of severe environmental pollution in central Europe were growing last night as it became clear that recent flooding had caused a large amount of chlorine gas to leak in the Czech Republic, near the border with Germany.

The Spolana chemical plant on the river Elbe, 15 miles north of Prague, was the site of what a Czech official described as "a mini-Chernobyl" after being inundated with floodwater and leaking lethal gas into the air. The Czech authorities ordered a police investigation, sacked the management of the plant, and complained that they had been deceived by the people in charge of one of the most notoriously toxic sites in central Europe.

Chlorine gas, which is lethal in high concentrations, was used as an early form of chemical weapon.

The highly contaminated site is also known to be riddled with dioxins, which are likely to have been washed into the Elbe flowing north through Germany and into the North Sea. The Czech interior minister, Mr Stanislav Gross, announced yesterday that the management had been dismissed for failing to disclose the chemical leak to the authorities.


"Our agreement was such that no one would take action in the event of a leak without the assistance of our people," he told Czech state radio. "But no one from our office knew about it."

Mr Jan Papez, head of the government committee dealing with the floods, said the problems at Spolana "threatened a large number of lives". The highest alert is in the area around the town of Neratovice, north of Prague, where local media reported that trees and crops had been scorched. The leak was the second in a week after the floods, which swept through many parts of the Czech Republic. The first prompted the Czech and German environment ministers to tour the area to calm fears that chemicals were leaking into the water.

The chlorine gas escaped on Friday, apparently while being moved from one warehouse to another to try to protect it from the flooding. Ground and air samples have been taken and the results are expected in the next few days. Much of the plant was closed down years ago. In the 60s there was an epidemic of dioxin poisoning which was covered up by the Communist regime.

The plant produced herbicides and chemicals, and indirectly supplied the US with chemical ingredients for the manufacture of Agent Orange, which it used to devastating effect as a defoliant in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Even before the recent flooding, Greenpeace in Prague had warned the Czech government of an environmental disaster waiting to happen. "Contaminated buildings are situated in an area near the Elbe that floods on average once every 50 years.

"If this happens, dioxins will be washed into the environment," it said last month.

"The ground-water under Spolana is contaminated not only with dioxins but with many other toxic chemical substances."

The land by the river is heavily polluted with mercury, according to environmentalists, and some of the most dangerous buildings have been encased, Chernobyl-style, in a concrete sarcophagus.