The American company behind the pollution scandal in Zwijndrecht received more than €5 million in regional subsidies from the Flemish government.
The fact that financial support was given to chemical company 3M was uncovered by the regional MP of the Flemish Green party (Groen), Mieke Schauvliege, following a data request.
"Lax standards, little control. And now it appears that 3M received €5 million in subsidies since 2013. Groen now wants 3M to pay this back," Schauvliege said on Twitter.
Of these funds, €2 million came from the Flemish Climate Fund, according to Schauvliege, who added that the company also received federal aid, including tax reductions to promote research and development.
However, a condition for this aid to be given to the company was that it would obtain a certificate from the Flemish environmental department (Departement Omgeving) which "clearly stated that the new products and technologies have no negative effect on the environment or are limited as much as possible."
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"This is mind-boggling when you know that this company is paying a ridiculous amount of money to clean up the soil that it has polluted itself," Schauvliege told Belga news agency, adding that "the fact that big polluters get taxpayers' money so easily must be stopped as a matter of urgency."
"Respecting environmental standards must be a strict condition, which is also monitored in the field," she added.
'Companies over citizens'
The Zwijndrecht pollution issue and the government's involvement made headlines before and during the summer of this year. However, PFOS - a chemical hazardous to human and animal health - was first found around the 3M plant in 2017 when works started on the Oosterweel project, designed to complete the Antwerp ring-road.
It was later revealed that the authorities – including the Flemish waste agency OVAM, the Antwerp city council and the Flemish government – had known about the PFOS problem since then and that OVAM's efforts to disclose this were stifled by someone in the government.
Vooruit MP Hannes Anaf argued that "the subsidies to 3M prove once again that the Flemish government prefers to look after companies rather than its citizens," explaining that multinationals in Flanders benefit from massive discounts on the CO2 emission taxes they normally have to pay, in addition to subsidies granted to promote the energy transition.
"And this without any form of transparency or conditions. In the case of 3M, the Flemish people pay twice, because they have also continued to emit chemicals for years, polluting our water and soil with irreversible damage to our health," Anaf said.
Schauvliege has now urged Flemish Economy Minister Hilde Crevits to demand that the sum of money be recovered, adding that "when Flemish ministers open the tap to big polluters like 3M, one wonders if the government knows what it is doing."