‘The heart of the problem’: Why hundreds of activists stormed a forever chemical plant in Lyon

Some of the activists from Youth for Climate and XR scaled the Pierre-Bénite plant buildings on Friday.
Some of the activists from Youth for Climate and XR scaled the Pierre-Bénite plant buildings on Friday. Copyright Youth for Climate France
By Euronews Green
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The Pierre-Bénite plant has been targeted before, as local health concerns grow.

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Hundreds of climate activists stormed a ‘forever chemical’ plant in Lyon, France, this weekend.

Fossil fuel companies and their funders are the more usual targets of Extinction Rebellion and Youth For Climate, the groups behind the protest on Saturday (2 March).

But this wasn’t the first time that French chemical giant Arkema had received some unwelcome visitors at its Pierre-Bénite plant south of the city.

As public awareness grows about PFAS - toxic chemicals that persist in the environment indefinitely - campaigners are ramping up actions against manufacturers.

What happened at Arkema’s Lyon plant?

On Saturday afternoon, over 400 activists from Extinction Rebellion Lyon and Youth for Climate Lyon broke into the site to carry out what the latter states was a “citizen’s inspection”.

A press release from Arkema describes the intrusion of “several hundred militant activists”.

Dressed in hazmat suits and divided into several groups, some activists tried to stop the factory’s machines. Others scaled the building to drop banners visible from the A7 motorway, while another contingent blocked the access gates to the site.

The activists say they carried out a "citizen's inspection and ensure that the machines endangering the environment and human health were shut down."
The activists say they carried out a "citizen's inspection and ensure that the machines endangering the environment and human health were shut down."Youth For Climate

Youth for Climate describes the action as an ‘open’ or ‘Portes Entr'ouvertes’ day - opening up the site by knocking down fences while building a wall to prevent deliveries.

“With these gestures, the activists have redesigned the company as it should be today: shut down, and open to stop the serious pollution it is causing, [while allowing] investigations…” the group says.

Eight activists were arrested according to a report from the AFP news agency yesterday.

Why did activists break into the chemical plant?

“At a time when the industrial site is at the heart of the problem of PFAS contamination of the water, air and soil of the southern Lyon region, the activists are demanding the clean-up of the affected areas, the real application of the precautionary principle, and compensation for the damage suffered by employees, residents and farmers,” Youth for Climate says.

PFAS pollution in the Rhône Valley is well documented. Several manufacturers operate in this area near Lyon, earning it the infamous title ‘Chemical Valley’. But campaigners emphasise the outsized role of Akema, which has been producing PFAS since 1967.

According to a December 2022 report from France’s General Inspectorate for the Environment and Sustainable Development (IGEDD), 3.5 tonnes of PFAS have been released into the river each year since at least 2011.

The activists also painted a fresco on the banks of the Rhône in central Lyon, depicting an Arkema representative pouring PFAS into the water of a nursing mother.
The activists also painted a fresco on the banks of the Rhône in central Lyon, depicting an Arkema representative pouring PFAS into the water of a nursing mother.Youth for Climate

In November 2022, following a media investigation and official order, Arkema introduced a filtration system at the Pierre Bénite site, intended to reduce its discharge of fluorinated additives by more than 90 per cent.

But locals fear the damage has already been done. More than 200,000 people could be affected by the pollution, according to French NGO Notre Affaire à Tous. Locals are concerned that high levels of PFAS blood contamination could be to blame for certain cancer cases.

However, a case brought by Notre Affaire à Tous, together with trade unions and 47 ‘victims’ of forever chemicals against Arkema last year was rejected by the courts.

“Faced with the pollution caused by the company and its impunity, activists took action,” Youth for Climate says.

Is Arkema really cleaning up its act?

In light of the ‘ecological transition’, Arkema says the Pierre-Bénite site is now transforming to meet the demand for new materials needed in Lithium-ion batteries.

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It is continuing to produce fluorochemicals - Forane fluorogases and Kynar polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF), a speciality polymer - for a range of industries, including construction, air conditioning and pharmaceuticals.

Youth For Climate is concerned by Arkema’s plans to increase PVDF production capacity by 50 per cent in the next few years.

“The activists also came with a big question,” the group says, “how long has Arkema known that the products it uses and discharges into the Rhône without any consideration are dangerous?”

In response to Saturday’s protest, director of the site Pierre Clousier said, "We condemn such an act, which not only seriously disrupts the work of over 500 employees, but can also put employees and demonstrators at risk, given the industrial activity of the site, which is classified as SEVESO [a hazardous substance].

“We would like to thank the police and in-house teams for their composure and professionalism, which prevented the situation from degenerating. In December 2022, our site was already targeted and we filed a complaint, and we will do so again this time".

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The company also says that the plant will be able to manufacture its products without the use of fluorinated additives by the end of 2024.

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