Get ‘bomb factory’ out of here, say Borders villagers

Residents in a small village in the Scottish Borders are campaigning to have a chemical factory, nicknamed ‘the bomb factory’ relocated after an explosion last month left the village in lockdown, a main road closed, and two people taken to hospital.

Sunday, 2nd February 2020, 7:27 am
Fallout from the Rathburn Chemicals blast
Fallout from the Rathburn Chemicals blast

People in the village of Walkerburn in the Tweed Valley were rocked by the incident at Rathburn Chemicals, which happened around 6.45am on Friday 10 January.

Residents woken up by a “huge explosion, bricks thrown high in the air and a massive fire shooting up with a vengeance” said they thought the force of the blast indicated an earthquake or a bomb.

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Rathburn Chemicals, a family-run business, which has been in the village for over 40 years and employs around a dozen workers, produces materials for a range of sectors including pharmaceuticals and government agencies.

Following the explosion, a specialist team of experts experienced in dealing with hazardous materials rushed to factory, which was on fire.

Residents were evacuated and not allowed back to their homes until 3pm. Walkerburn primary school remained closed for rest of the day and the A72 and A7 were closed.

An explosion at the factory in 2001 resulted in a worker being taken to hospital and residents being evacuated.

Last week campaigners held a meeting demanding that the factory be relocated to land away from the village.

Silvia Vickers, who is leading the campaign, said: “A lot of us are concerned about the dangers from the highly inflammable chemicals stored in the building.

“What we want is for it to be relocated, not shut down. We know it provides jobs and makes money for the Scottish Borders.”

Michael Lhombreaud, a retired criminal justice social worker, said: “What I want an answer to is the simple question ‘Is it reasonable to expect a factory which has all these cocktails of chemicals to be right in the middle of a small village?

“I suspect the owners or authorities won’t do anything about moving unless they have to. But people are desperate for their jobs and don’t want to speak out, so we know there is great strength of feeling about this.”

Lhombreaud added: “Ultimately I don’t think anyone can guarantee the safety of the villagers.”

Alison Mackenzie, a company directory of Rathburn Chemicals, said: “I am deeply sorry for the upset and disturbance caused by the incident at Rathburn Chemicals on the 10th of January, and recognise the continuing anxiety of some of our neighbours.

“The company takes its responsibilities for the health and safety of our staff and local community very seriously, and is working closely with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in its ongoing investigation. We are keen to comply with any recommendations that may result.

Mackenzie added: “I listened carefully at Silvia’s meeting on January 20th to people’s concerns, and I have begun investigating support for relocation, although it is too early to say if this suggestion will prove viable.”

Michelle Ballantyne, Scottish Conservative MSP for South Scotland, said: “My thoughts are with those affected by the fire, and I wish them a speedy recovery.

“Rathburn chemicals has been a valued Walkerburn business since 1975, however I understand the concerns raised by residents and parents.

“It’s important that we have community co-operation moving forward that recognises and addresses the safety concerns whilst also appreciating Rathburn’s history in Walkerburn and their contribution to the local economy both in terms of employment and inward investment in the village.”

A spokesman for the HSE said: “HSE has been made aware of this incident and is investigating.”

The HSE do not issue reports on their investigations as the findings are used by the courts if enforcement action is required.