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3M contamination due to corruption, say environmental inspectors

17:53 23/09/2021

According to staff working for the Flemish department of the environment, the multinational conglomerate 3M got away with poisoning the soil and waterways because of corruption within the department.

The public prosecutor in Antwerp has opened an investigation into the levels of the chemical PFOS found in the soil and water around the 3M plant in the town of Zwijndrecht, just west of Antwerp. While many politicians, environmentalists and water management experts have long known that the soil around the plant was contaminated with the cancer-causing chemical, the details of the situation only reached the public last spring during digging works associated with the Oosterweel project.

People living in the area have been told not to eat any food they grew themselves, nor the eggs from their chickens. Levels of PFOS in residential properties have been measured as high as 750 nanograms per millimetre, while the norm is 6.8 nanograms.

Farmers with high levels of PFOS in their soil are at risk of losing their businesses. PFOS doesn’t break down, so contaminated soil and water is notoriously difficult to disinfect.

Never-ending revelations

Over the ensuing months, revelations about the situation have gone from bad to worse, with a Flemish parliamentary investigation opened into who knew what and when, more information about how much of the chemical went directly into the Scheldt river and how much the taxpayer was going to have to contribute to clean-up efforts.

In a televised report aired by VRT yesterday evening, investigative journalists revealed that Flanders’ environmental department not only knew about 3M far exceeding the norms of PFOS contamination but actively ignored it for political reasons.

“Not everyone is equal under the law,” one witness told Pano, the investigative news programme. “If the parliamentary committee discovers what has happened – mostly what has not happened – at 3M in Zwijndrecht since June of 2018, a lot of eyebrows will furrow. The entire affair suggests that nothing has halted 3M – or other large companies – for many years. And that’s largely true.”

Pano spoke to inspectors and other staff working for the environmental department, all of whom spoke anonymously to avoid reprisals at work. Some of them are used to reprisals, in fact, testifying that anyone who made demands about curbing the functioning of some companies until they were in line with environmental policy were punished with more difficult workloads.

“Some corporations, for a number of reasons – the jobs they provide, say – we couldn’t come down on too hard,” said one employee. “The former CEO of 3M, for instance, he wouldn’t accept any enforcement of policies.”

‘An open secret’

Current and former inspectors for the department told Pano that average citizens did get fined for offences to environmental policy, while giant corporations did not – or received very low fines. “It’s an open secret that environmental fines are embarrassing low,” one inspector told Pano. “So it’s much more financially beneficial for a company to continue breaking the law and just pay the fines.”

Supervisors in the department put pressure on inspectors, they say, to bury reports and ignore findings for large corporations. It goes far beyond 3M, say the inspectors.

One worker said that the environmental administration in Flanders is “a mess” because “party loyalists have been given key funtions. A results-driven environmental policy is literally impossible. There is not a shred of vision when it comes to the environment.”

In the meantime, Pano spoke to medical experts who confirmed that blood tests taken from people living in Zwijndrecht showed high levels of PFOS, more than 14 times safe levels. This comes with a much higher risk for certain kinds of cancer as well as cholesterol.

“It’s just sinful because it’s one of the most fertile regions in the world,” an organic farmer told the news programme. “We leapt into this business without a care in the world.” While his vegetables are being tested for chemical levels, he has no idea if the government will reimburse him for losses he could potentially undergo if he can no longer farm the property.

Following the airing of the programme, Flemish environment minister Zuhal Demir (N-VA) has announced that an audit will be carried out within the inspection service of the environmental department.

Photo: “The polluter should pay!” Area residents and activists are furious at the American multi-national 3M for its blatant pollution of the ground and water in Antwerp province
©Katleen Vastiau/BELGA


Written by Lisa Bradshaw