Industrial Spill Accidents

Industrial Spill Accidents


Industrial spilling can be described as the accidental release of hazardous substances into the environment in gas, liquid or solid form. The risk of spilling occurring when managing chemicals is high as they are often corrosive, toxic and because of their reactive nature – often explosive as well.[1] The consequences depend on the type of surrounding environment and the type of chemicals accidently released.  

According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) “[i]ndustrial operations may involve substances that do not usually represent a great threat to our health or our environment but are nevertheless potentially hazardous. Even the safest plant is never totally risk-free”.[2]

One of UNECE's focal points is the prevention of future industrial accidents and mitigating its transboundary effects. Since 1990, it has created a homogenous crisis management and contingence plan for various types of accidents. One of these efforts resulted in the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents (Helsinki Convention).[3]

Prior to the Helsinki Convention industrial accidents were fairly unmonitored and industries did not follow any established guidelines on how to dispose their waste and which preventive measures should be taken in order to mitigate future accidents. The accidents described below played a massive role in determining the vital procedures in preventing such man-made tragedies and have aided the responsible parties in rectifying its procedures.

Union Carbide Corporation Ltd.

The Union Carbide Pesticide accident in Bhopal, India is considered the worst spill case in history with around 10,000[4] deaths and thousands more injured in the early morning of 3 December 1984. The catastrophe was caused by various human and mechanical failures which led to the Methyl-Isocyanate (MCI)[5] gas leak. This toxic leak spread throughout the nearby city. The effects of the Bhopal accident is felt to the present day - with birth defects and respiratory disease being the most prominent.

Ajka Alumina Plant

A wall from container No. 10 at the MAL Hungarian Aluminium refinery plant in Ajka, Hungary collapsed on 4 October 2010 releasing one million cubic metres[6] of toxic sludge[7] into a nearby river. The respective disaster is the worst one in Hungarian history, killing four[8] people and injuring hundreds more. The toxic sludge reached the Danube River[9] which carried the substance downstream affecting other European countries. The surrounding fauna and flora was the most affected by the respective disaster. This incident showed that accidental water pollution can have far-reaching transboundary effects even if it happens at a location far from any international border.[10]

Accidents of the same dimension as Bhopal, Ajka and Seveso created an unprecedented demand for effective countermeasures, pre-emptive efforts and corresponding legislations. Meanwhile, Occupational Health and Safety (OHS)[11] an area concerned with safety, health and welfare of people engaged in work employment gained more importance in accordance to the topic of industrial accidents. Additionally, the implementation of HAZWOPER by the United States government reinforces the importance for the necessary training to handle hazardous substances – used on an international scale.[12]

[1] Pollution Issues. 2014. Disasters: Chemical Accidents and Spills.

[2] UNECE. 2014. “About the Convention.” United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. Edited by United Nations. Geneva. Accessed October 2014.

[3] Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents. 1992. 19 April 2000, No. 36605 (United Nations, Helsinki 17 March). Accessed October 14, 2014.

[4] BBC News. 1984. “1984: Hundreds die in Bhopal chemical accident.” Timeline: India, 03 December. Accessed October 2014.

[5] Union Carbide Corporation. 2014. Bhopal Gas Tragedy Information. Accessed October 2014.

[6] Circa 1 million m3.

[7] The toxic sludge is composed of “Iron Oxide (hence the red tile colour), aluminium oxide, silicon dioxide, calcium dioxide, titanium oxide and oxygen-bonded sodium oxide”. In addition the respective substance has a high pH (Alkali) which could result into pulmonary damage, if inhaled as dust. (Knight 2010).

[8] Nadler, John. 2010. Hungary Continues to Battle Its Toxic Flood. 7 October. Accessed October 2014.,8599,2024266,00.html

[9] A south-central Europe river rising in southwest Germany and flowing about 2,848 km (1,770 mi) southeast through Austria, Hungary, Serbia, and Romania to the Black Sea. It has been a major trade route since the Middle Ages. (Dictionary 2009).

[10] UNECE. 2014. “About the Convention.” United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. Edited by United Nations. Geneva. Accessed October 2014.

[11] Also known as Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) or Worker Health and Safety (WHS).

[12] Please refer to Other Action for more information on this topic.

International Action

In 1992, The Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes was signed in Helsinki, Finland. The particular Convention intends to strengthen national measures for the protection and ecologically sound management of transboundary surface waters and ground-waters. In addition, the Convention obliges Parties to prevent, control and reduce transboundary impact, use of transboundary waters in a reasonable and equitable way and ensure their sustainable management. The Convention includes provision on monitoring, research and development, consultations, warning and alarm systems, mutual assistance, and exchange of information, as well as access to information by the public. The respective Convention was later amended to allow accession by all the United Nations Member States. The amendments entered into force on 6 February 2013 – leading the Convention to become a global framework for transboundary water cooperation.[1],[2]

Meanwhile, the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents was simultaneously signed in Helsinki during the 1992 meeting. The Convention is designed to protect human beings and the environment against industrial accidents. The Convention aims at the prevention and reduction of industrial accidents, and the mitigation of effects, if required. Contracting Parties to the Convention must identify hazardous activities within their jurisdiction and must inform the affected parties of any such proposed or existing activity. At the initiative of any one of them, the other parties must enter into discussions on the identification of activities capable of causing transboundary effects. In Paddition, under the Convention contracting states must ensure that adequate information is given to the public in areas that might be affected by an industrial accident.[3]

The cooperation between the respective Parties of the two Conventions resulted in the 1998 Berlin joint workshop on the prevention of chemical accidents and limitation of their impact on transboundary waters.[4] The findings of the respective workshop led to the seventh meeting of the Partiesto the Industrial Accidents Convention which prompted a proposal, under both Conventions, to the formation of a Joint Ad Hoc Expert Group on Water and Industrial Accidents.[5]

Correspondently a seminar was held in Hamburg, Germany on the prevention of chemical and limitation of their impact on transboundary waters. The seminar produced various recommendations which was adopted during the second Meeting of the Parties to the Water Convention and further endorsed by the first meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Industrial Accidents Convention, both held in 2000. Furthermore, an additional rectification was met by the Parties to both Conventions to extend the Expert Group's mandate to support and provide guidance in the implementation process of the previously mentioned recommendations.[6]

In 2010, a methodology was developed for an effective contingence plan for accidents with potential transboundary watercourse which was endorsed by the two Bureaux of the Water and Industrial Accidents Conventions. The task was assigned to the Expert Group. The decision will further aid UNECE member countries to establish a homogenous crisis management procedures and contingency plans on accidents which pose a potential threat to transboundary waterways. Presently the Expert Group is on an advanced stage for the required preparations for the implementation of its methodology.

The Protocol on Civil Liability and Compensation for Damage Caused by the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents on Transboundary Waters, was adopted in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2003. The Protocol is a joint instrument to the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents and to the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes. The Protocol was signed by 24 European states but as of 2016, the Protocol has been ratified only by Hungary and is not in force.

[1] Countries outside the ECE region will be able to join the Convention as of 2014.

[2] UNECE. 2014. Water Convention - The UNECE Water Convention. Accessed November 19, 2014.

[3] Europa. 2008. Transboundary effects of industrial accidents. 04 April. Accessed November 2014.

[4] UNECE. 1998. “Joint Workshop on the Prevention of Chemical Accidents and Limitation of their Impact on Transboundary Waters.” Workshop, Economic and Social Council, United Nations, Berlin. Accessed October 15, 2014.

[5] UNECE. 2014. Joint Expert Group on Water and Industrial Accidents. Accessed October 14, 2014.

[6] Decision 2000/5 on the Prevention of Accidental Water Pollution, Annex VI.

Featured International Institutions

Featured International Instruments

EU Action

Seveso Directive I, II, III

On July 10, 1976 a pesticide and herbicide manufacturer in Seveso, Italy suffered a critical setback as a dense vapour cloud[1] containing tetrachlorodibenzoparadioxin (TCDD)[2] was released into the air. There was “an immediate contamination of some ten square miles of land and vegetation. More than 600 people had to be evacuated from their homes and as many as 2000 were treated for dioxin poisoning”.[3]

The accident is well-known in European law as it brought awareness to the risks involved with managing chemicals at large scales and the proximity of industrial operations to urban areas prompting the adoption of fitting legislations.

Subsequently, the Seveso case prompted the European community to form a multilateral legislation which aimed at preventing and controlling similar accidents. Hence the Seveso Directive 82/501/EEC (Seveso I) was adopted in 1982.

The Seveso Directive is divided into three parts: identification, control and mitigation. The following could be translated into the respective component parts: safety management of sites, emergency planning, land use planning and inspection. However, the implication of these components is related to the type of chemicals used in the plant and its characteristics – for example: toxic, very toxic, volatile, etc.

In December 1996, a further attempt to broaden the Directive’s scope was met by the newly formed Council Directive 96/82/EC on the control of major-accidents hazards (Seveso II) – it went into force on the 3 February 1999. Correspondingly the United Kingdom implemented Seveso II through the COMAH[4] Regulations and planning legislation.[5]

The Directive was further adapted on 4 July 2012 by its replacement – Directive 2012/18/EU on the control of major-accident hazards involving dangerous substances (Seveso III). The approach of Seveso III remains the same and the same applies to its component parts. The noticeable changes are on public information and justice accessibility in order to promote public participation – one of the key themes discussed by the European Parliament and the Commission. Additionally the inspection system has been updated. Seveso Directive II will be replaced by Seveso Directive III on 1 July 2015. 

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) has aided the development of the Seveso Directives from the beginning. In 1996, the Major Accidents Hazards Bureau was created as a part of the JRC to guide the continuous efforts to reduce the risk of chemical accidents in the European Union. The Bureau provides technical advice and coordinates technical exchange among experts from the various EU Member States.

[1] A poisonous and carcinogenic by-product of an uncontrolled exothermic reaction.

[2] Commonly known as Dioxin. Chemical Accidents (Seveso I, II and III) - Prevention, Preparedness and Response. 22 August. Accessed October 2014.

[3] EC. 2014. Chemical Accidents (Seveso I, II and III) - Prevention, Preparedness and Response. 22 August. Accessed October 2014.

[4] The Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) Regulations - Health and Safety Executive. 2014. Control of major accident hazards (COMAH). Accessed October 16, 2014.

[5] Carried on by the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) in England, Scotland and Wales.

Featured EU Institutions

Featured EU Initiatives

  • eMARS

    Major Accident Reporting System

    European Union Action to Fight Environmental Crime

Featured EU Instruments

  • EU Directive 96/82/EC – Seveso II

    Directive 96/82/EC of 9 December 1996 on the control of major-accident hazards involving dangerous substances
  • EU Directive 2003/105/EC – Seveso II (extension)

    Directive 2003/105/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2003 amending Council Directive 96/82/EC on the control of major-accident hazards involving dangerous substances
  • EU Directive 2012/18/EU – Seveso III

    Directive 2012/18/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 4 July 2012 on the control of major-accident hazards involving dangerous substances, amending and subsequently repealing Council Directive 96/82/EC (Text with EEA relevance)

Other Action

U.S. Government National Response Centre

The National Response Centre’s (NRC) primary function is to serve as the main national point of contact for reporting oil, chemical, radiological, biological and etiological discharges into the environment within national territory - 24 hours a day. The respective centre serves as the national communication and operations centre while gathering and distributing spill data in cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). Moreover, the centre is interlinked with a variety of federal entities allowing further notifications on these incidents while involved in the combat of terrorist activities within national territory – Terrorist/Suspicious Activity Reports and Maritime Security Breach Reports.[1]

Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER)

HAZWOPER “applies to five distinct groups of employers and their employees. This includes any employees who are exposed or potentially exposed to hazardous substances, including hazardous waste, and who are engaged in [...] operations as specified by [provisions] 1910.120(a)(1)(i-v) and 1926.65(a)(1)(i-v)”.[2]

HAZWOPER refers to the various operations and emergency services involving different types of hazardous waste around the world – in focus the industries under the federal government of the United States of America. HAZPOWER acts under the “Occupational Safety and Health Guidance Manual for Hazardous Waste Site Activities”.[3] The respective term is part of the hazardous waste treatment regulation imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).[4]

[1] EPA. 2014. National Response Center. Last updated - 22 August. Accessed October 18, 2014.

[2] USDL/OSHA. 2014. HAZWOPER. Accessed October 17, 2014.

[3] NIOSH/OSHA/USCG/EPA. 1980. Occupational Safety and Health Guidance Manual for Hazardous Waste Site Activities. Manual, United States Government, Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. Accessed October 19, 2014.

[4] USDL/OSHA. 2014. HAZWOPER. Accessed October 17, 2014.



EFFACE is funded under the 7th Research Framework Programme of the European Union.
The contents of the EFFACE Environmental Crime Research and Action Guide website are the sole responsibility of EFFACE and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.