Grézieu-La-Varenne, a small town in southeastern France, has unexpectedly become part of an international environmental debate. After dangerous levels of pollution were uncovered, a criminal ‘ecocide’ investigation is underway, the first of its kind in the EU.
‘Ecocide’ describes widespread, long-term, and intentional acts of environmental harm. Last year, after years of campaigning by activists, France became the first EU country to criminalise these actions. Now, this new law is being put to the test.
Audrey Marcodini moved into her dream home three years ago, a property nestled at the foot of the Lyonnais mountains. She and her teenage daughter spent close to two happy years here until an unexpected discovery turned their lives upside down.
Trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent commonly used by dry cleaners, was detected in Grézieu-La-Varenne in 2019. Whilst common, this chemical is a known carcinogen, and high levels of exposure can be fatal. The discovery came after one of Audrey’s neighbours found a viscous, foul-smelling liquid in her backyard.
When the search was extended to Audrey’s house, which sits on an old industrial laundry site, tests showed the trichloroethylene levels were over 800 times the legally acceptable limit.
Audrey and her daughter were urgently rehoused, but the potential long-term damage to their health is still unknown.
Alongside the criminal trial for ‘ecocide’, six civil lawsuits have also been filed by residents. Only one verdict has been delivered so far, which found two solicitors and one real estate company guilty. The convicted parties must therefore pay one million euros for failing to disclose details of the pollution.
Audrey says: "It is important to me that the people who have knowingly polluted our planet, and who have got away with it until now, are forced to pay."
Whilst activists believe France’s national law is a step in the right direction, they are also calling for ‘ecocide’ to be recognised by the International Criminal Court.
This means that crimes of severe environmental destruction would be considered on a par with war crimes and genocide.