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Swiss soul-searching follows chemical accident

The Swiss long have prided themselves on their ecological sensitivity. That pride has taken a beating in the past three weeks. The insecticides spill into the Rhine River following a fire at the Sandoz chemical plant here on Nov. 1 not only worried residents, but provoked outrage, sadness, and soul-searching throughout the country. ``Nobody here will have any faith in the chemical industry now,'' says Basel resident Thomas Kern. Hardi Gysin, head of the Federal Office of Environmental Protection, said the accident ``has shattered our confidence - that of our neighbors, too - in self-regulation.''

Switzerland's overall antipollution laws, dating back to 1876, are considered by many to be a model for Europe, particularly with respect to water regulations. Nevertheless, two factors may lie behind the lack of vigilance that led to the spill. One is the Swiss federal system itself, where pains are taken to avoid a strong central government. The 26 cantons (states) of Switzerland had a handful of individual pollution control laws before the 1970s, but in 1971 the federal government was given a mandate to coordinate a system of controls. This focused primarily on manufacturing and waste disposal because those were the problems presented by the cantons. Protection against fire in a warehouse storing toxic chemicals - such as at the Basel plant - fell between legislative cracks.

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A second reason for the lack of control may be the financial might of the chemical industry. It is Switzerland's second largest exporter.

Switzerland's neighbors have complained that the nation's regulations dealing with toxic substances fall short of those of the European Community (EC), of which Switzerland is not a member. The 12 EC member nations signed the Seveso Directive (so called because of a pollution disaster in 1976 in Seveso, Italy) which will be fully effective by 1989. It provides for close monitoring and specific storage and transport guidelines for any producer or handler of toxic substances. Last week, the Swiss government announced it planned to study ways to bring its standards closer in line with those of the EC. But the EC program is not cheap: according to French officials, even a small company may have to spend $200,000 just to initially meet the standards.

Many environmentalists here would like to see Switzerland go beyond the EC's regulations. For example, Greenpeace is calling for the federal government to take over all security checks in the chemical industry immediately and halt productions of any chemical products harmful to people, including toxic pesticides.

As efforts were under way this week to clean up the chemicals still in the river around Basel, the Swiss began to turn attention to other after-effects of the spill. It is widely agreed that the damage claims will be very costly (although much less than claims against Union Carbide for the fatal gas leak in Bhopal, India, two years ago.) Sandoz and the Swiss government have made it plain they consider it their responsibility to pay, but it could take years to sort out the legal tangles.

Sandoz said this week it is substantially cutting back its insecticide business.

Lost in the uproar over the accident has been a less dramatic but very important fact: long-term pollution, say scientists along the Rhine, is still doing more damage to the river than the Sandoz spill. Hydrologists report, for example, that an estimated 10 tons of mercury are washed downstream to Rotterdam every year despite antipollution laws.

Still, efforts begun a decade ago to improve the river's water quality are considered to have been largely successful.

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