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October 1,
Volume 79, Number 40
CENEAR 79 40 p. 14
ISSN 0009-2347
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Blast at TotalFinaElf's ammonium nitrate facility kills at least 29 people


A huge explosion rocked the industrial French city of Toulouse on Sept. 21 when a fertilizer plant operated by Grande Paroisse--a subsidiary of Atofina, the chemical arm of TotalFinaElf--blew up. Its cause is not known, but available information strongly suggests it was accidental.

The official death toll stood at 29. Of the roughly 650 people hospitalized, 34 were judged to be gravely injured.

The blast not only demolished the Grande Paroisse plant, which employs 460, but also destroyed neighboring buildings and blew out half the window glass in the city of 1 million, according to local reports. Damage was also extensive at the SNPE rocket-fuel and chemical plant, a major phosgene producer located across the Garonne River from the Grand Paroisse plant. A cloud of chemical products, mainly ammonia, blanketed the city, but it was not considered toxic since it was diluted in the atmosphere.

Grande Paroisse produces nitrogen fertilizers marketed under the name AZF, as well as chemical intermediates. The culprit suspected in the blast, ammonium nitrate, is well known for its explosive potential. In one famous incident in 1947, a ship loaded with ammonium nitrate exploded in the Texas City harbor, destroying the harbor and adjacent industrial facilities and killing at least 600 people. More recently, ammonium nitrate was used in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal office building in Oklahoma City.

In addition to government investigations, TotalFinaElf has appointed its own internal commission to uncover the cause of the explosion.

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