The Guardian - 17-05-05
Jon Henley in Paris
One day in early 2001 a local councillor in the small town of Grignon near Albertville in the French Alps looked around the room at his colleagues and was struck by a frightening coincidence. He had leukemia, his wife had died of cancer, and four of his fellow council members had recently been diagnosed with the same illness.
The councillor, who today prefers not to be named, alerted the mayor, Marcel Paviol.
Cautiously, town officials began asking questions.
They found that among Grignon's 1,800 inhabitants there had been 78
cases of cancer in the past 10 years. In one street of 80 houses,
24 people had been diagnosed with the disease.
Could the grime which local residents wiped off their garden furniture be as noxious as it was annoying? The answer, it seems, was yes.
Now, nearly four years after the Gilly plant was closed following a series of catastrophic emission readings, France's highest court, the cour de cassation, has seen off a government attempt to bury the scandal - raising hopes in the valley that justice may be done.
"It's a hugely important and encouraging decision for us," said Dominique Frey, co-president of the pressure group ACALP, which represents 180 of the 230 local people affected. It's given us back our serenity."
The court has rejected a request by the justice ministry to transfer the investigation from Albertville to a specialist public health prosecutions unit 186 miles away in Marseille.
The ministry had argued that Helene Lastera, 30, the investigating magistrate in charge, was too young and inexperienced for such a "complex" case. But the court said she was making progress and should be allowed to continue. It stopped short of saying what many people in the valley think: the government wanted Ms Lastera removed because she was beginning to get close to important people.
The court may also have considered that moving the case away from Albertville would not necessarily have served the best interests of the victims, and that the fact that the public health prosecutions unit in Marseille does not exist yet might have further hampered the investigation's progress.
Ms Lastera has, so far, put five local officials, including the mayor of Albertville, the site of the 1992 winter Olympic Games, under formal examination (one step short of being charged) for "poisoning, deliberately endangering the lives of others, involuntary injury and manslaughter".
But she plans to question two former préfets, or senior state representatives, in the region, one of whom is now a leading adviser to the prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and three former environment ministers. Michel Barnier, France's foreign minister, is among them: he was environment minister at the time, and also president of the Haute-Savoie county council from 1994 to 1999.
According to the left-leaning newspaper Libération, Ms Lastera was asked to step down a week after a suspect told investigators that Mr Barnier had asked local environmental authorities to ease off on polluting waste incinerators in the run-up to the 1995 local elections.
The incinerator could prove to be one of France's biggest public health scandals since the mid-1980s, when HIV-tainted blood contaminated several thousand users of the national transfusion service.
It should, to start with, never have been built in a narrow valley filled with turbulent winds. Operating procedures were rarely respected; workers at the plant, Ms Lastera has found, deactivated the filters at night so the waste would burn faster. For more than 15 years, local officials refused to measure the incinerator's emissions. By the time they got round to it, the first test found the level of dioxins the plant was belching out was 13,000 times the permitted norm.
"We found women here had been feeding their babies dioxins for the past decade," said Frederique Sanchez, an ACALP member.
Described by some of those she has investigated as a "cow", and a "stupid whore", Ms Lastera is awaiting the outcome of two more series of lab tests to evaluate the toxic and carcinogenic risks of the incinerator to the valley's population. The case is expected to come to court in 2006.
Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment