Cover Image
close this bookThe Long Road to Recovery: Community Responses to Industrial Disasters (UNU, 1996, 307 p.)
close this folder4 Seveso: A paradoxical classic disaster
close this folderOverview
View the documentThe chemical release
View the documentDioxin
View the documentThe Seveso Directive

The Seveso Directive

The best-known consequence of the Seveso disaster was the impulse that it gave to the creation of the European Community's Seveso Directive, a new system of industrial regulation. Within the EC, each country previously followed its own rules for managing industrial safety. Urgent discussions about a new EC-wide regulatory framework for ensuring the safety of hazardous installations started after an explosion of cyclohexane in the Nypro Ltd. plant at Flixborough (United Kingdom, 1974).3 During the next two years, three additional serious chemical accidents occurred within the European Community: these were at Beek (the Netherlands 1975), Manfredonia (Italy 1976), and finally Seveso (Otway and Amendola 1989; Drogaris 1991).

One of the most remarkable features of the Seveso experience was that neither the residents nor the local and regional authorities suspected that the ICMESA plant was a source of risk. They did not even know much about the type of production processes and chemical substances that occurred there. As the Mayor reported (Rocca 1992, personal communication), the factory had been in existence for 30 years and the only occasional complaints from nearby residents concerned some unpleasant smells. Moreover, at Seveso as well as Flixborough, "changes had been made in plant or processes which compromised the safety of the facilities but were not communicated to authorities responsible for public health and safety" (Otway and Amendola 1989: 507).

In light of these disastrous accidents it was clear that new legislation was needed to improve the safety of industrial sites, to plan for off-site emergencies, and to cope with broader regional and transboundary aspects of industrial safety. The Seveso Directive, adopted by the Council of Ministers of the European Communities in June 1982 (Directive 82/501/EEC), is the result of those efforts. A central part of the Directive is a requirement for public information about major industrial hazards and appropriate safety measures in the event of an accident. It is based on recognition that industrial workers and the general public need to know about hazards that threaten them and about safety procedures. This is the first time that the principle of "need to know" has been enshrined in European Community legislation. The "need to know" principle is not as strong as the "right to know" principle that is widely applied in the United States. The status of "need" is determined by the authorities; it is not a right of citizens (Baram 1991; Royal Society Study Group 1992).

Although the Seveso Directive grew out of deficiencies in the existing system of industrial regulation, it is not simply intended to provide protection against hazards: it is also designed to equalize the burden of regulation on industry. The creation of a single hazardous industry code ensures a "level playing field" for trade within the European Community by depriving unscrupulous industrial operators of competitive advantages that might flow from exploiting differences among varied national regulations. Moreover, adoption of the "need to know" principle increases the political equity of decision-making and adds a valuable new tool to the regulatory process. The next section examines this institutional response in greater detail.