What is the link between REACH and Bitterfeld?

Contribution of Helmuth Markov MEP to the GUE/NGL-Conference: „Chemistry in Italy and in Europe with the Reach Directive – Employment, environment and health“ on Saturday, 11 March 2006 in Venice/Italy

In order to be able to answer this question, we first need to look at some background information about Bitterfeld.

Bitterfeld lies at the centre of the „enlarged“ Germany, between Halle and Leipzig, more specifically in Saxony-Anhalt, one of these so-called five new länder which once were part of the former GDR.

„Chemical triangle“, „polluter-in-chief“, „European environmental disaster“, „modern chemical industrial estate“ – ¬all of these at times highly contradictory epithets correctly described and continue to describe the region around Bitterfeld.

Bitterfeld’s industrial past

The region around Bitterfeld has a longstanding industrial tradition. In the late 19th century, a factory was built for the production of chlorine, caustic soda and caustic potash. The choice of location in the triangle formed by Leipzig, Halle and Bitterfeld, the so-called „chemical triangle“, was not accidental. The energy-intensive chemical industry was able to make use of the large lignite deposits which were extracted through opencast mining in the region. The chlorine industry was followed by paint producers (Agfa) and then, at the beginning of the 20th century, by the magnesium, phosphoric acid, chlorobenzene and tar industries. During the First World War, Bitterfeld became the manufacturing centre for explosives and poison gas (including phosgene and chlorine). Insecticides, metals and light metal alloys arrived on the scene after the First World War, with large-scale production of PVC and sulphuric acid using gypsum coming after that. In 1925, the whole of the German chemicals industry, including that based in Bitterfeld, was brought together under the name IG Farben. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, the Bitterfeld chemicals industry concentrated increasingly on producing for the war effort (mercury for detonators, saltpetre, sulphuric acid and cellulose for explosives, and light metal alloys for the aviation industry).

Large parts of the industrial installations were dismantled in 1946. However, by 1948 Bitterfeld had begun producing chlorine and caustic soda again. With the creation in 1969 of the Bitterfeld Chemiekombinat VEB (a state-owned chemicals corporation), pesticides joined chlorine as another major Bitterfeld industrial sector. In 1989, some 30.000 people were employed by the chemical industry in the immediate region around Bitterfeld.

With the end of the GDR in 1990 and the collapse of its industry, the Chemiekombinat Bitterfeld became the Chemie AG Bitterfeld-Wolfen (and later the Chemie GmbH), while the majority of the former works were demolished to make way for a modern industrial estate. „Traditional“ Bitterfeld products such as chlorine, caustic soda, phosphorus compounds and pigments were joined by new products such as quartz glass (Heraeus), hydrogen peroxide (Solvay), aspirin and ion-exchangers (Bayer), electrochemical products (Akzo Nobel Base Chemicals) as well as various others from the photovoltaic and solar energy sectors. In Bitterfeld-Wolfen, there now are approximately 350 businesses in the manufacturing and service sectors employing just under 10.000 people – i.e. one-third of the number employed in 1990. The rate of unemployment currently stands at 22.6 %. The radical industrial restructuring in Bitterfeld has cost more than EUR 3.5 billion to date, with what is now the Bayer site alone accounting for EUR 750 million.

The environmental situation in Bitterfeld

When you look around the modern Bitterfeld-Wolfen industrial estate, you can hardly imagine what it must have looked like once. Over the course of approximately 100 years, some 5000 different chemicals entered the soil and consequently the groundwater as a result of inadequate waste management or defective installations. The contaminated soil had to be removed in part after 1990 and taken to special waste disposal sites while other areas had to be sealed or decontaminated at great expense. Thus, some 100 000 m3 of contaminated soil had to be excavated to a depth of 7 m and removed from the site of the current Bayer aspirin works. On the face of it, what was a sizeable problem has at least been significantly reduced. Work has also begun on the decontamination of the famous, not to say notorious, ‚Silbersee‘ (Silver lake), a former opencast mine which was used as an outlet for waste water by the Wolfen photo works.

The situation is quite different, however, as regards the unresolved problem of groundwater contamination by a veritable cocktail of chemicals over the years. Some 30 metres beneath Bitterfeld is a huge underground bubble containing some 200 million m3 of toxic contaminated water which threatens the drinking water supply for the whole region. The Leipzig/Halle environmental research centre is attempting to decontaminate part of the groundwater through the installation of special „decontaminating“ barriers but this project is still in its infancy. An additional problem, now that opencast mining has stopped, is that the groundwater level is rising again after years of being lowered artificially and is thus bringing the toxins it contains closer to the surface. Where they will then flow to, nobody knows. The underground toxic lake under Bitterfeld therefore constitutes a ticking environmental time-bomb. Experts estimate the clean-up costs at around EUR 1 billion, provided a clean-up is possible. The restoration of the former opencast mine is more or less finished. The opencast mine was turned into a local recreational area around the Goitscher lake. The river Mulde was expected to take seven years to fill the lake but flooding in the Elbe and Mulde river basins in 2002 resulted in this taking place in seven days. Had flood levels been only a little higher, the new chemical industrial park would also have been flooded and the Bitterfeld region would have experienced a new environmental disaster.

Could REACH have prevented the current situation arising in Bitterfeld?

The question is, of course, totally hypothetical since, even if everything goes to plan, REACH will only enter into force in 2007 at the very earliest and the situation in Bitterfeld is the legacy of over one hundred years of chemical contamination.

The primary objective of REACH is to complete known information about some 30 000 chemical substances and to make certain that all users of these chemicals, whether manufacturers, processing industries, end users or waste disposal agents, have access to all the information they need to be able to process these substances safely. In addition, more hazardous substances are to be replaced with safer ones so as to make the use of chemicals safer in general.

Would the outcome have been different had REACH been in force at the beginning of Bitterfeld’s long history as a chemical production site? When we ask this kind of question, we should keep in mind that environmental awareness is much greater now than one hundred or even twenty years ago. So, this ‘hypothetical’ REACH scenario would have had the following effects:

• Before beginning production of various chemicals, manufacturers would have had to draw up a compendium of data about the substances in question along with the corresponding use and exposure situations in order to be able to decide whether or not they could manufacture these substances in a safe way for both humans and the environment and, if so, under what conditions. This assessment would then have required the approval of the Chemicals Agency. Since this assessment would also include waste disposal, they would not have been allowed to let toxic effluents seep into the ground or let them flow into bodies of water from the start.
• Should the chemicals in question have required a licensing procedure, then the Bitterfeld chemical industry, if it still wanted to use them (if there were no technical alternatives or if they had to do so for socio-economic reasons), would have had to supply the authorities with a detailed description of the technical installations they intended to use to guarantee the protection of human health and the environment. These would have included systems to filter out pollutants from exhaust gases and waste water, something which Bitterfeld was seriously lacking in long ago.
• Moreover, there would have been a whole series of products, notably in the insecticides sector, which would not have been produced in the first place, either because they would have been subject to a limitation procedure or because there were more environmentally friendly alternatives.

Nevertheless, had REACH been in force at the time, it would not have been able to prevent the destruction of the Bitterfeld PVC works by explosion in 1968 and the resulting environmental damage.

If REACH can sufficiently raise the awareness of all those concerned, from the manufacturer to the waste disposal agent, regarding the relationship between chemicals, humans and the environment on the basis of the right knowledge, then it is to be hoped that the way chemicals were frequently dealt with in Bitterfeld prior to 1990 will become a thing of the past.