Mathijs Moorkamp portret FM
Mathijs Moorkamp portret FM

Fireworks disasters Culemborg and Enschede: has the government learned from them? 

Culemborg, 14 February 1991. A storage with fireworks catches fire and explodes. Two people are killed, 30 are injured. Nine years later, on Saturday 13 May 2000, another fireworks explosion. Twenty-three people in Enschede are killed, including four firefighters. Nine hundred and fifty people are injured. The blast was the largest explosion in the Netherlands since World War II (Source: Wikipedia) 

What is the government doing after tragic fireworks disasters like Culemborg and Enschede? Is it making improvements in its legislation and policies? Is it drawing lessons from what went wrong? Matthijs Moorkamp, Associate Professor of Governance of Safety at the Public Administration department, as a member of the University of Twente's research team, analyzed together with the other members 250,000 pages of documentation and released the report 'Lessons from two fireworks disasters'. Moorkamp: ‘The Netherlands needs a transparent political decision on dealing with the danger of fireworks stores.’ 

From all the documents Moorkamp studied with the team, it emerged: we never want another fireworks disaster. Moorkamp: ‘Yet little by little, we saw that safety distances for fireworks depots were getting smaller and smaller. The result is that, based on the current Environment Act, we are allowed to live and build eight meters away from fireworks depots. My own safety opinion then says: you shouldn't want this.’ 

Conflict of interest 

Conflicting interests and fundamentally different views on risk and safety created a solid conflict of interest between ministries. The result was inconsistent policies, laws, and regulations surrounding fireworks stores for consumer fireworks. It is one of the main conclusions from the report 'Lessons from two fireworks disasters' that Moorkamp conducted in collaboration with the University of Twente on behalf of the House of Representatives. Moorkamp: ‘Whereas some ministries did not want stricter distance requirements between fireworks storage and buildings because of the containment of economic movements, other ministries did not want to make concessions on the safety of the immediate surroundings. The Fireworks Decree thus became a compromise with an apparent trade-off of strict policy on professional fireworks and lenient rules for consumer fireworks.’  

The investigation team detected a conflict of interest between ministries in the way ministries granted licenses to fireworks companies. Moorkamp: ‘This revealed the trail from licensing to a conflict at the national level between ministries. Why always these concessions and this compromise in policy and regulations? The core seems to lie in the conflicting interests within the government.’ 

Because contrary to what is sometimes claimed, fireworks are indeed unpredictable.


According to Moorkamp, it is this contradiction that has contributed to the inhumane safety situation when it comes to fireworks storage. Moorkamp: ‘Because contrary to what is sometimes claimed, fireworks are indeed unpredictable. Where one batch of fireworks does not explode, the next batch may. And sometimes even in such a way that it comes to a mass explosion. Taking that into account, you cannot find that you can put up residential houses eight meters away from a fireworks store. That's a big problem.’ 

Moorkamp argues for a transparent political decision on the extent to which the government wants to accept or address risks from fireworks displays. Moorkamp: ‘Now the creation of safety policy is quite opaque and then suddenly a decision comes. That raises questions and resistance from people.’ 

Enschede remains a topic of conversation  

After Enschede, were there no steps at all? ‘Of course there were,’ says Moorkamp. ‘A solution for professional fireworks was found after Enschede, something that had been dragging on for years. Also, as a result of our report, the fire brigade changed their fireworks fire extinguishing instructions. But there is still some way to go for better rules on safety distances of fireworks stores.’  

A social and political path that Moorkamp certainly wants to stay involved in. Moorkamp: ‘I also want to make society a bit better with the help of independent scientific knowledge. And if there is one institution in the Netherlands that is independent, it is the universities. That's why you very much need the role of a university in a socially impactful issue like this.’ 

You can read the full report 'Lessons from two fireworks disasters' here (Only in Dutch). 

Text: Annette Zonnenberg 

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