High in the French Pyrenees, the city of Tarascon-sur-Ariège has a long and proud industrial heritage.

Industry had been the lifeblood of the region since the late 1800s, when local engineers harnessed water flowing from the mountainous terrain to power factories and mills.

By the early 1900s the first aluminium smelters had appeared in the region, and in 1926 the Sabart aluminium plant opened. At its peak, the operation employed up to 600 people and included a smelter, cast house, anode-baking furnace and ferro-silicon plant.

But by the mid-1990s the operation’s relatively small size and remote location meant it could no longer compete with larger smelters around the globe, and then-owners, Pechiney, closed it. Other plant closures followed in the region, hitting the community hard.

Looking at the bigger picture

Fast forward to 2016, and the Sabart aluminium plant site is once again a source of pride for the town.

During the past few years, Rio Tinto has been working with the local community to plan the site’s future. The company inherited the closed smelter following its acquisition of Alcan in 2007, which in turn had acquired Pechiney in 2003. It was agreed the city of Tarascon-sur-Ariège would buy the site at a discounted price, and transform it into a multi-use precinct for both recreational and commercial use.

Decommissioning the Sabart aluminium plant

By working closely with local stakeholders we can create assets that bring value to the community and enhance our reputation

Amiel Boullemant, Sabart site manager

“While legacy sites could be regarded as liabilities, by working closely with local stakeholders we can create assets that bring value to the community and also enhance our reputation,” said Amiel Boullemant, Sabart site manager, in Rio Tinto’s Legacy Management team.

“At Sabart, as with all our legacy sites, we looked at the bigger picture. Our focus was not just on safely decommissioning the site, but also working with the community to create opportunities for the future.”

The Tarascon-sur-Ariège council considered a number of options for the six-hectare site, deciding a mix of commercial and recreational uses would deliver the best long-term outcome. A new small business park will help drive employment, while the recreational area will allow the town to better capitalise on one of the region’s most important cultural landmarks – the 12th century Notre-Dame de Sabart church.

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The Sabart aluminium plant site, Tarascon-sur-Ariège, France
A new future for an old industrial town A new future for an old industrial town
Sabart decommissioning facts

Collaboration is key

Once the plans were finalised, Rio Tinto established a working group to ensure the decommissioning and rehabilitation work would align with the council’s aims for the site. The group, which included representatives from two city councils, government agencies, and local businesses situated nearby, enabled smooth decision-making and ensured all parties shared a common vision.

Rio Tinto invested €3 million in the decommissioning and rehabilitation programme, which involved asbestos removal, soil decontamination, and the demolition and removal of large structures and foundations. More than 55,000 tonnes of soil was excavated, treated, sorted and crushed for use as backfill on the site.

A key challenge was removing asbestos materials, which must be carefully handled, from significant heights. All of this was undertaken just 100 metres from the historic church and completed within ten months. Despite these challenges, the decommissioning team delivered the project with no significant safety incidents. Given many contractors were involved in the project, the team shared Rio Tinto’s safety systems and procedures – such as critical risk management – to ensure high safety standards were consistently met.

The decommissioning programme was finished in October 2016, and the city council is now undertaking civil works to prepare the site for commercial use. Once opened, the business park will house up to ten small businesses.

Managing what we
leave behind

Managing what we
leave behind

In 2016, Rio Tinto’s legacy management team monitored and managed more than 100 old sites in five countries.

In 2016, Rio Tinto’s legacy management team monitored and managed more than 100 old sites in five countries.

The team makes sure our former operating sites, including those we inherit through acquisitions, are made safe, that all problem areas are addressed cost-effectively, and that there is a sustainable future for the community. It can be challenging work: the team must often navigate conflicting stakeholder views, overcome environmental and technical issues, and comply with wide-ranging regulatory requirements.

Over the years we’ve learned from our successes and our mistakes. We continue to develop our approach, refining the methods and tools we use, and learning from our experiences.

Image: Flambeau mine during operations in 1996 and the reclaimed mine in 2012.

A new chapter

Notre-Dame de Sabart will be the focal point of the new recreational precinct. The church’s history is steeped in legend. While the first recorded mention of the church was in 1104, it is believed that Charlemagne witnessed a miracle at the site centuries before. It’s now an important site of religious pilgrimage, with thousands of people from near and far gathering at the church each September.

For many years it had been hidden away among derelict buildings, and will now be given a chance to reclaim its former glory. It is hoped the new recreational amenities will help draw more tourists. Alain Sutra, Tarascon City Mayor, said it marked a new chapter for the city.

“I have mixed feelings. A lot of sadness, because it’s the end of a story. But also a lot of happiness, because I feel like I’m helping write a new page. We are investing in our future and making our city more beautiful,” Alain said in an interview with local TV station Franceinfo.

“Tarascon is not really the industrial city that it once was. Now, it is my job, it is our job, to write a new page. And this new page is much more based on tourism.”

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The 12th century Notre-Dame de Sabart, previously hidden away among derelict buildings, will be the focal point of the new recreational precinct