Sacked workers pour toxic acid in French river

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The Independent Online

Workers laid off by a textile factory in northern France poured highly toxic chemicals into a stream leading into the river Meuse last night, threatening an ecological catastrophe in three countries.

Workers laid off by a textile factory in northern France poured highly toxic chemicals into a stream leading into the river Meuse last night, threatening an ecological catastrophe in three countries.

The "hard wing" of the 153 workers sitting in at the Cellatex factory in Givet, in the Ardennes, are now threatening to blow up the factory - maybe as soon as today - unless they are given generous severance payments.

Families were packing up and fleeing the town last night after the workers carried out the first of their threats and emptied a vat of sulphuric acid into a stream leading to the Meuse. Reports varied on the exact quantity of the chemicals dumped into the stream. One account said that 56,000 litres of the highly toxid acid had been released.

French government officials at the site disputed that figure and insisted firefighters had already taken measures to dam the stream and prevent the sulphuric acid reaching the Meuse. The river, one of the main waterways of northern Europe, crosses the Belgian frontier to the north of Givet and flows out to the sea through the Netherlands.

A security officer at the Cellatex factory, the place where the synthetic fibre rayon was invented, said last night that the situation inside the plant was out of control. "The authorities don't want to face up to the dangers that exist here," he told the French news agency, Agence France Presse. "I am leaving them to assume their responsibilities. I am taking my family and going as far away from here as possible."

The Cellatex factory has been threatened with closure for years, in a town and region already devastated by the collapse of textile industries under competition from the Far East. Despite the efforts of a management buy-out team, the 153 remaining workers were given notice of final closure on 5 July.

The workers immediately barricaded themselves inside the plant and threatened to blow up the building unless they were given lump-sum severance payments of £15,000 each. Last Friday a notice circulated by a so-called "hard wing" of the workers set a deadline of 6pm yesterday for a settlement of their demands. Otherwise, they warned, they would open the taps on the vats of sulphuric acid and poison the stream.

If their demands were still not met, they said, they would blow up the plant, releasing a cloud of toxic gas. Moderate workers fleeing the factory last night said that some of the hardliners were threatening to set off the explosion today, unless the French Employment Minister, Martine Aubry, came to negotiate with them in person. A similar demand for the personal intervention of Ms Aubry was made yesterday but ignored.

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