Chemical leak at Spolana - could it have been avoided?

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The people of the small town of Neratovice, just a few kilometres north of Prague have had a frightening few days. Not only was the town seriously affected by the huge flood wave that swept through the Czech Republic last week, but they have also been living in constant fear from the huge Spolana chemical plant on the edge of the town. A series of leaks that occurred at Spolana have led even the Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, to ask serious questions about how prepared Spolana's management was for the floods. David Vaughan reports from Neratovice.

Passions were running high at a press conference as the specialist team investigating the series of leaks at Spolana, met with local people. With fury in his voice one man, who lives in the next village accused the plant's management of criminal negligence. The dramatic events in the town started with rumours that mercury and dioxins could have leaked from the plant, and ended with two sizable leaks of chlorine, both into the water and - more seriously - into the atmosphere. Local confidence in Spolana is in ruins.

Flood expert, Jan Papez, insists that the chemical plant couldn't have done any more, and that no-one could have been prepared for the most serious floods in 500 years.

But what has most upset local people most has been the series of conflicting signals that they were given by Spolana in the course of the floods, giving a strong impression that the management was trying to hush up the whole situation. The police has launched an investigation and Spolana's owners, the Czech petrochemical giant Unipetrol have sacked the plant's director.

So how dangerous was the situation. Marc Watt is a Canadian specialist who has come in to observe the cleaning up operation.

"It's dangerous. It was dangerous, but I think the situation is stabilised for the most part. But at the end of the day the thing that I'm impressed with most is that no-one was killed or injured as a result of the release of the chlorine. So something had to have happened correctly."

What is the danger from chlorine being released into the atmosphere like that?

"It's going to disperse over time. It is going to kill vegetation. It is going to be harmful to humans. Long term damage: there's going to be some burn-off of some of the vegetation in the area, but eventually that's going to grow back and hopefully there's no long-term contamination, because it is going to be dispersed as a gas."

But is it really true that this accident couldn't have been avoided? I asked Marc Watt's colleague, Don Brenan, whether he could imagine something like this happening in Canada.

"Yes, we've seen it on this scale before, but not in a populated area."

Doesn't that disturb you, the thought that this plant is right by a little town?

"If we were going to build one right now it wouldn't be that way but villages and towns have grown up around things in Europe, and it was a matter of course years ago, and then it was too late."