Flanders reaches agreement with 3M over pollution clean-up

Flanders reaches agreement with 3M over pollution clean-up
An action of Greenpeace Belgium near the 3M site, holding signs reading "the polluter must pay." Credit: Belga

For months, Flanders has battled with the fallout of the historic chemical pollution scandal around a Belgian site of American multinational 3M. Now, the region's environment minister Zuhal Demir announced that a clean-up agreement has been reached.

Earlier this year, the company was found responsible for the contamination of the air, soil and blood of people in proximity to its site in Zwijndrecht, in the province of Antwerp. The PFAS pollutants are chemical substances that are dangerous both to human and animal health.

3M must now invest a total of approximately €571 million in previously agreed remedial actions to reduce the risk of PFAS contamination harming humans and the environment.

"The health of our citizens and the protection of the environment comes first," Demir said on Wednesday, adding that the agreement is the "result of an intense month-long process," and "resolves ongoing disagreements between the government and 3M."

Specifics of agreement

In addition to previous commitments made by the company, the new agreement includes setting aside €150 million for the clean-up of the PFAS contamination on and around its factory in Zwijndrecht in Antwerp, which Demir said would only cover the first clean-up phase.

In total, the company will commit €571 million in response to the pollution near its factory, including €250 million to identify priorities for remedial actions and €100 million to support the Oosterweel project to complete the Antwerp ring road, which first revealed the pollution scandal.

3M will remove contaminated soil from gardens and agricultural space in the area, reduce the flow of contaminated groundwater into a nearby stream and prevent the wind dispersion of potentially PFAS-containing soil or dust through a comprehensive dust control plan.

Aerial drone picture of the 3M plant in Zwijndrecht. Credit: Belga

Another €100 million will be freed up to provide funds to the Flemish Government to be used "in sole discretion" in connection with the fall-out of the PFAS emissions from 3M Belgium’s site.

"As a result of this Agreement, we will be able to get things done in the best interest of the people of Zwijndrecht, our local farmers and our prosperity and wellbeing in general," Demir said.

The company will also be required to publish online reports about its operations and hold public meetings to explain how it is committing to the agreement.

“This agreement is a major step forward for the People of Flanders, as well as for 3M Belgium’s operations in Zwijndrecht and its ability to serve its customers," John Banovetz, CTO and head of Environmental Responsibility at 3M, said in response to the agreement.

Full extent of pollution still unknown

Just one day before the agreement was announced, research by the Vlaamse Milieumaatschappij (VMM) showed that PFAS are widespread in shallow groundwater in the region based on samples taken from 200 measuring points, with the highest concentrations found in the province of Antwerp.

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The hazardous chemical was already discovered in the blood of hundreds of local residents near the 3M factory as well as in the soil and the air nearby its site. However, little was known about the presence of the substances in the region's groundwater following the pollution scandal, apart from in certain hotspots, such as the site itself.

The European guidelines for drinking water for all measured PFAS compounds were exceeded around the 3M site in Zwijndrecht. The VMM said that more research is needed to show how the PFAS spread in the groundwater and said eventually, a standards framework would be needed for groundwater too, as is already the case for drinking water.

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