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Perspectives for the conversion of a 19th century Marseille tartaric acid factory : pollution, heritage, and grass roots initiatives

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12:00 PM, Monday 29 Aug 2022 (20 minutes)
From the early 19th century, the southern edge of the Marseille coastline was privileged with industries, including lead factories, spinning mills, and glassworks. In 1873, Hillarion Roux created a lead factory at Madrague de Montredon. After ten years, production ceased, and the factory was subsequently sold to the Mante family, who converted it to the fabrication of tartaric acid. In 1887, they formed Legré-Mante et Cie, which remained on the site until 1980. In 1981, the Margnat family acquired the factory, and created the Société Française des Produits Tartriques Mante, continuing the specialization in tartaric acid. It was the last factory in the area to close in 2009. Today the sprawling twenty-one-acre site is still referred to as the Legré-Mante Factory. Sitting on a coveted spot above the Mediterranean Sea, it is nestled against the coastal hillside that is now part of the national parc des Calanques. In the over ten years since its closure, it has been the site of speculation for real estate projects. Yet the ageing 19th Century industrial site remains largely intact, due to an obstacle that makes a successful conversion extremely challenging: The site is highly polluted, namely with lead, arsenic, cadmium, zinc, and mercury. The neighborhood non-profit Association Santé Littoral Sud, created in 2011, has fought for a conversion and depollution of the Legré-Mante site at the grass roots level. Through their actions, the association has increased awareness of the dangers involved in converting a site where chemical pollutants accumulated for nearly 150 years, both at local and municipal levels. In June 2020, after almost ten years of actions, the Association Santé Littoral Sud registered an official complaint at the Judicial Court of Marseille for “deliberate endangerment of others, waste disposal, destruction of habitats of protected species, and water pollution.” Thus, emphasizing the dangers of pollution has been an effective way of stressing the importance of a conversion and reutilization which follow national safety regulations, and which respect the local village-like environment. However, the Legré-Mante site is also a rich example of Marseille 19th century industrial heritage, notably featuring a remarkable 800-meter horizontal chimney snaking up the hillside, and culminating with a vertical chimney on the steep, rocky terrain, high above the factory. Even after 135 years of operations, and despite the deterioration since the factory closed in 2009, the factory largely retains its original appearance, as shown in an engraving dating from 1885. Discussions with local inhabitants have also revealed their strong attachment to the memory of the heritage of the Madrague de Montredon area, and specifically to that of the last neighborhood factory. How can the characteristics of a former chemical factory be valorized in a successful reconversion, through an initiative led mainly by a local, grass roots movement? While the degree of pollution means that environmental concerns will necessarily remain part of the discussion and reflection process, the site’s rich industrial heritage can provide a framework in a multi-disciplinary concertation on plausible conversions. After twenty-five years of Jean-Claude Gaudin, Marseille has a new mayor, and the new city administration appears open to discussion on uses for the site other than real estate. An exploration of the stakes surrounding the conversion of the last factory on Marseille’s southern coastline will lead to a better understanding of the forces and policies involved in current French industrial conversions, and could provide valuable insight for different actors facing similar questions surrounding abandoned factories in other countries.

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