Talking industry accountability: Will the polluter pay?

Investigative campaigners from Belgian environmental organisations (including EEB member BBL and Thomas Goorden, participant in the EEB Clean Air Group) have recently uncovered a major case of industrial pollution in the Antwerp harbour, receiving impressive media coverage. Jean-Luc Wietor reports.

Their story has all the characteristics of a major scandal: large amounts of a rather awful chemical in soil and water, a factory discarding it lavishly for years, and a public authority turning a blind eye.

The 3M factory in Zwijndrecht, in the Antwerp harbour, produces PFASs, highly fluorinated chemicals that break down extremely slowly in the environment, and that cause many negative effects for humans and nature. The 3M factory dumped large amounts of PFOS and similar substances on the ground next door and into the river Schelde. As a result, a pond in the Natura 2000 protected area Blokkersdijk (formerly industrial ground), the groundwater and the soil around it contain massive amounts of PFOS and other fluorinated chemicals. The area also holds the record for the highest PFOS concentrations ever measured in wildlife. What to do with such problematic legacy?

The local authorities had a cunning plan: build a new road tunnel in the area, right next to the Natura 2000 site, move some soil away, wrap the absolute worst of it in plastic and bury it in the rest, et voilà!

However, the soil exceeds current safe thresholds (both by Flemish and Dutch standards) up to 180 times. 3M was probably rather pleased with this plan, for what is better than public authorities (re)moving your pollution at the taxpayer’s expense? Certainly, the ‘polluter-pays principle’ is flouted in Antwerp, as it is elsewhere.

Almost 20 years ago, the 3M factory in Zwijndrecht moved away from PFOS to produce PFBS (an SVHC under REACH), as well as often-overlooked perfluorinated ketones and amines.

For many years, the permitting authorities have allowed 3M to discard PFOS (and other PFASs) at levels suiting their modest ambitions. As if emissions to soil and water were not bad enough, recent permit documents reveal that 3M heavily underreported emissions of F-gases – long-lived greenhouse cases thousands of times more potent than CO2.

Of the major PFAS-producing factories in Europe, most have been tainted with major scandals. Scandal pioneers are doubtlessly Chemours/DuPont Parkersburg (think: The Devil We Know and Dark Waters), Fayetteville, Dordrecht and the defunct Miteni factory in Trissino. The club was recently joined by Solvay Spinetta Marengo and now 3M Zwijndrecht.