In November 1986 an accident at a pharmaceutical company located on the River Rhine at Basel, Switzerland, resulted in the inadvertent release of 33 tons of toxic materials.' The effects were immediate and dramatic: half a million fish and eels died and local residents could not use the river as a source of drinking water for about a month. This accident, highly publicized in the world press, raised a major public outcry calling for an action plan for reducing the risks of such accidents in the future.
Historically, however, the impact of chemical accidents on the overall pollutant load to the river has been relatively minor. For example, in 1980 about 27 tons of toxic materials daily (10,000 tons per year) were transported by the Rhine into the Dutch Delta and the North Sea. This toxic load was the result not of accidents but, rather, of normal industrial, commercial, agricultural, and urban activities conducted within the Rhine Basin on a routine basis.
The effects of such chronic pollution are not as obvious or spectacular as those occurring after industrial accidents. Much of the daily input ends up in sediments of the Dutch Delta, and the rest is washed out to the North Sea. Even today the sediments in the delta are so polluted that the spoils, collected during dredging operations to keep navigation lanes open, are too toxic to be applied to polder lands in the Netherlands, as was the practice in the past. On the other hand, the River Rhine today transports far fewer pollutants to the Netherlands than it did in 1980, even though the level of economic activities in the basin has not changed very much since then.
Analysing the history of pollution in the Rhine Basin, including the recent clean-up, can provide valuable insights into the linkages between economic activities and chemical pollution, and the opportunities for decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation. The research described in this chapter, while not addressing all possible aspects of this history, will, we hope, provide a basis for improved policy-making.
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