30 years after Bhopal: UNECE countries meet to enhance industrial safety and transboundary cooperation

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On 3 December 2014, 30 years to the day after the largest chemical accident in human history occurred in Bhopal, India, the eighth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents will open its doors to over 100 representatives of governments, industry, academia, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations.

On 3 December 1984, a chemical accident in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people and injured hundreds of thousands more due to the release of highly toxic gas into the atmosphere. The reminders of the accident and its after effects persist today. While India is far away, chemical accidents have happened — and could happen again — in the UNECE region. The chemical accidents close to Seveso, Italy, in 1976 contaminated the surrounding area and poisoned local residents due to the release of dioxin. The accident triggered the development of EU legislation on the control of major-accident hazards involving dangerous substances, known as the “Seveso Directive”. 10 years later, an accident at the Sandoz chemical plant in Schweizerhalle, Switzerland, resulted in the draining of large volumes of contaminated water into the Rhine River, creating a toxic plume 70 kilometres long, flowing through Switzerland, France, Germany and the Netherlands. The pollution of the Rhine River led to the death of half a million fish in the affected countries. As one of Europe’s worst environmental disasters with significant transboundary impacts, the accident triggered the negotiation of the UNECE Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents and its adoption in 1992.

Almost 15 years since the Industrial Accidents Convention came into force, representatives of UNECE member States will gather from 3 to 5 December 2014 in Geneva to take stock of the implementation of the Convention, decide on its future development and ensure that chemical substances with health and environmental risks are covered. Parties will also exchange views on the possible opening of the Convention to accession by States beyond the region, further widening its geographic scope as a legal framework to address prevention, preparedness and response to industrial accidents in a transboundary context.

On the occasion of the 10-year anniversary of the Convention’s Assistance Programme, Parties will review achievements in strengthening industrial safety in countries of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. During a high-level panel discussion, taking place in the morning of 3 December 2014, the UNECE Executive Secretary, the Environment Minister of the Republic of Moldova, the Minister of Emergency Situations of Belarus and the Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to the United Nations Office at Geneva will exchange views on the progress made, challenges and approaches to support countries in transition to prevent industrial accidents from occurring, and to prepare for and if needed, be able to respond to such accidents, in cooperation with neighbouring countries.

On the morning of Friday, 5 December, a seminar on enhancing industrial safety in the UNECE region will enable participants from governments, NGOs, industry, academia and international organizations to exchange views and good practices on industrial safety. The exchange will support all countries in the region in their continuous efforts to avoid environmental and human tragedies due to accidents arising from industrial activities, and to limit their transboundary consequences — in order to avoid another Bhopal, Seveso or Schweizerhalle incident. 

More information on the meeting, the seminar and registration is available from:

http://www.unece.org/env/teia/cop8.html#/.

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