Today sees the inaugural meeting of the Flemish parliament’s committee of enquiry into the pollution in the region by the chemical PFOS, specifically around the site of the 3M plant in Zwijndrecht.
The presence of the pollutant at the site was first revealed in 2017 but has more recently become an issue because nothing was done at the time, despite the health hazards.
The parliamentary committee was the idea of environment minister Zuhal Demir (N-VA), much to the displeasure of her party and their coalition partners.
Not to put too fine a point on it, if the committee is allowed to do its work, some prominent members of those parties will be left with very red faces indeed, if not worse.
The mission of the committee
According to the parliamentary motion setting up the committee of enquiry – the first the Flemish parliament has seen since the year 2000 – its mission is to examine the long term effects of PFOS on public health and the responsibility of the American industrial group 3M.
Also on the table will be an arrangement between Lantis, the company behind the creation of the Oosterweel section of the Antwerp ring-road, and 3M, regarding the clean-up of the polluted soil.
The committee will also be unavoidably faced with the question of political responsibility: who knew what and when did they know it? This is the question that most troubles the coalition because it potentially implicates ministers from both N-VA and CD&V.
Who are the committee members?
The committee is made up of 15 members of the Flemish parliament, according to their relative party weight in the chamber: five from N-VA, three from Vlaams Belang, two each from CD&V, Open VLD and Groen, and one from Vooruit.
Jos D'Haese (PVDA) worked hard to be included on behalf of his far-left party, which mathematically would have increased the size of the committee to 27 members. In the end, he was admitted to take part in hearings but without a vote.
The committee will be chaired by Hannes Anaf, the sole representative of opposition party Vooruit, in a selection that was thought would increase the commission’s credibility.
"I'm going to try not to damage that trust," Anaf told VRT Radio this morning.
"I will start with a call to work together across party boundaries to dig to the bottom of this matter. I think we will invite 3M, Lantis, all competent government agencies, ministers, local mayors, but also experts more broadly."
How long will the enquiry take?
The committee has been given a deadline of 31 January 2022 by the parliament to produce its final report on the matter.
Seven months seems like a long time, but it does cover both the summer and Christmas holidays, and the dossier is a complicated one. The summer break in particular is on the doorstep, so the committee must make giant strides in order to get some substantial material under its belt before the recess.
"The MPs will have to learn to ask questions," said VRT political specialist Ivan De Vadder.
"With all due respect, MPs don’t know how to ask questions. If you watch a question time, MPs make statements and at the end of that there usually comes a small question, but it doesn't matter anymore. It's the statement that the party and the MP are happy with. If you take that attitude into a committee of inquiry, you will get nowhere."