On Wednesday, the judiciary decided to temporarily suspend work just begun at the Stocamine underground hazardous waste storage facility in Wittelsheim (Haut-Rhin), making the final containment of the residue the government had hoped for even more uncertain.
“The work is suspended until the court, which will decide shortly, examines the legality of the substance of the decree” adopted by the prefect of the Haut-Rhin in January, said the Strasbourg administrative court seized as part of the summary of the suspension procedure by the European Community of Alsace ( CEA) and the Alsace Nature Association.
Thus, a new hearing on the merits of this work will take place by the end of 2022.
“There is serious doubt about the legality of the decision to continue the work, in particular the backfilling of the 15th block and the completion of some protective fences of the mine adits,” the administrative court said in a press release.
Located near the water table in Alsace, the largest in Europe, this former potash mine, whose adits are gradually sinking, still contains, at a depth of 550 meters underground, about 42,000 tons of hazardous industrial waste (asbestos, arsenic …), but non-radioactive, buried at the turn of the 2000s.
Arguing for the deteriorating condition of the mine, the Haut-Rhin Prefecture authorized the start of preparatory work for the closure in January, although the substantive dispute over final storage of the waste or not is still ongoing.
– “Protection of underground waters” –
This work, which began on May 10 and was assigned to the BTP Bouygues group, concerns the construction of impervious concrete plugs. Then in June, the final backfilling of “Block 15” was planned, where a fire broke out in 2002, abruptly interrupting the addition of new waste.
Since that date, the future of Stocamine, originally intended to remain a non-permanent repository, has been a source of controversy and uncertainty.
After much delay, the state, represented by the then Minister Barbara Pompili, decided in January 2021 in favor of the final disposal of the remaining waste.
But the administrative judiciary overturned a prefectural ruling last October, much to the delight of residents and environmentalists, requiring as much waste to be removed as long as the galleries are available.
The new decree is still to be passed following the conclusion of the Environmental Protection Agency and a public inquiry.
“We have twice won the battle with the state, but we are far from winning what we want, which is to reduce the stocks of all waste to protect groundwater,” François Zind, a lawyer at Alsace Nature, responded to AFP.
– “We must limit ourselves” –
For its part, ECA said it was “satisfied” with the decision of the administrative court. Pending a decision on the merits, “the compromise proposal by the European Community of Alsace (conservation of the poorly maintained galleries and unit 15 and disposal of as much waste as possible, editor’s note) remains in place,” she said. press release, hoping to “make progress in resolving this case” with the arrival of Amélie de Montchalin as Minister of Ecological Transition.
Alsace Potash Mines (MDPA), the operator of Stocamine, for its part, did not wish to comment on this court decision, which they will “implement”.
During last Thursday’s administrative court hearing, Céline Schumpp, a peaceful MDPA liquidator, said she was not “hurrying but making security” because “the mine is closing and if we want to secure groundwater, we have to limit it.”
Stocamine is also still the subject of a criminal investigation regarding the exact nature of the dumped waste. It took two months to completely extinguish the 2002 fire. However, regulations generally prohibited the storage of any “flammable products” at the facility.
In addition, a 2016 public inquiry report noted that filling the Stokamine galleries with water from the Alsace groundwater had been “inevitable” for 70–300 years.