Taxpayer must foot bill for 3M’s unchecked contamination of soil
Chemical producer 3M will have to pay just €75,000 in containment costs related to the soil contamination spread across Zwijndrecht, Antwerp province, and possibly neighbouring communities. The Flemish government – hence the taxpayer – must foot the rest of the bill, which is estimated at more than €63 million.
It is the latest in a series of headlines that has shocked environmentalists, farmers, area residents and not a few politicians over the last two weeks. At issue is the chemical PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), long a problem for 3M globally, as it is a major pollutant. 3M, an American multinational, both makes the chemical and uses it to manufacture other products.
PFOS has a number of uses, making up components of fabric protectors, stain repellents, firefighting foams and hydraulic fluid. It can enter soil and water through spills but also simply through being released into the air during industrial processes. According to the European Environmental Bureau, 3M in Zwijndrecht “dumped large amounts of PFOS and similar substances on the ground next door and into the river Scheldt”.
PFOS is a cancer-causing agent and has also been linked to kidney disease, thyroid disfunction and disruption of the immune system. Because the chemical does not break down in soil, water or living things, concentrations can easily build up. 3M stopped producing and using PFOS in Belgium in 2002.
During the digging works related to the Oosterweel project – the major urban development project that will, among other things, close the Antwerp ring road – high concentrations of PFOS were discovered. Up to 26 times ‘normal’ levels were measured in some places.
People living in close proximity of the 3M plant in Zwijndrecht, just east of Antwerp, have been told to not eat anything growing in their gardens nor eggs from their chickens and to not drink or use groundwater to water their gardens. Those living outside of this 1.5-kilometre radius but within five kilometres are also advised to not eat eggs from their own chickens.
De Standaard newspaper has revealed that Zwijndrecht is considered a hotspot of PFOS contamination among scientists. This was simply not known to the public. “The Oosterweel works have literally brought this problem to the surface,” said Zwijndrecht mayor André Van de Vyver (Groen). “We are extremely concerned.”
De Standaard also broke the story today that a legally binding settlement was made between 3M and Lampis, the public-private partnership responsible for the management of the Oosterweel project, three years ago. The agreement states that 3M will be responsible for paying €75,000 of any containment costs and that no further litigation can be filed in future.
The settlement also states that the rest of the bill for containment belongs to the Flemish government. It was estimated to be as high as €63 million.
Flemish environment minister Zuhal Demir has gone as far as to threaten a parliamentary investigation with regards to the 3M situation ©James Arthur Gekiere/BELGA
Lantis agreed to the settlement because 3M denied that it was responsible for the high levels of PFOS, and Lantis did not want further delays to Oosterweel – a project that saw 20 years of protests, public referendums and compromises before breaking ground in 2019. “The advantage for Landis was that they could begin with the infrastructure works and not get buried in a judicial quagmire,” said Flemish mobility minister Lydia Peeters (Open VLD).
While closing deals with companies regarding future litigation on such a major project as Oosterweel is not unusual, the difference in the costs each party is responsible for has infuriated some members of parliament.
“3M has the Flemish government on a leash,” said Flemish MP Bjorn Rzoska (Groen). “This settlement makes it completely safe from legal procedures. The company, a multi-national, is paying next to nothing, so the bill falls to the taxpayer. This is the world turned upside-down. Normally the polluter pays; now it’s you and me.”
It’s also clear that not everyone involved in the project, including Flemish government ministers, knew about the deal. That includes the current environment minister – Zuhal Demir – who took office after the deal was made, and who is wondering if the previous environment minister was aware of it. Flemish public broadcaster VRT refers to it as a ‘secret deal’.
And complicating the matter further is a claim made by activist Thomas Goorden on Radio 2 Antwerp this morning. “According to my sources, 3M successfully intimidated the Flemish government in 2017,” he said. “They threatened to close the factory in Zwijndrecht if they would be held responsible for the PFOS contamination. If this all turns out to be true, than it is unbelievable how Flanders undermines environmental norms at the demands of industry.”
Photo ©Eric Lalmand/BELGA