A family from Zwijndrecht near Antwerp has filed a legal complaint against the multinational 3M, relating to the pollution of the soil around the local factory with the hazardous chemical PFOS.
The complaint means the Antwerp prosecutor’s office has now opened a criminal investigation into charges of illegal dumping of waste, and a breach of the legal duty to take care of the environment.
“Discharging waste is only possible with a permit,” environmental law researcher Hendrik Schoukens of the university of Ghent told Gazet van Antwerpen.
“And only in a landfill under controlled conditions. The duty of care goes even further. You can adhere to the permit, but a company is also bound to do as much as possible to safeguard the environment, for example, by using the latest technologies.”
The issue of PFOS recently came to light after it was revealed that soil samples taken from around the 3M plant were contaminated with the chemical as a result of industrial processes.
Since then, however, it has been revealed that the authorities – including the Flemish waste agency OVAM, the Antwerp city council and the Flemish government – knew about the PFOS problem as far back as 2017. OVAM was prepared to announce the news, but was stifled by someone in the government, allegedly in the office of Joke Schauvliege (CD&V), then minister for the environment.
The Flemish parliament has already agreed to create a committee of enquiry to look into the issue, which gives it the power to call witnesses including present and former ministers.
Now, however, the filing of a complaint from a member of the public means a criminal dossier has been opened, which may or may not lead to criminal charges. But the investigation has been opened, and an investigating magistrate appointed. That means the investigation has the full range of legal powers at its disposal, from questioning witnesses to carrying out search warrants and seizing documents, phone records or hard drives.
Should the case come before a court and the ruling go in favour of the family, a judge can order 3M to pay damages. However long before that stage is reached, the most important part of the filing is the power it gives an independent prosecutor to get to the bottom of what now appears to be a very murky affair.
Now that the case has been opened, it is now likely other persons and groups will attach themselves to the case as having a legitimate interest. Damages claims against 3M in the United States have already resulted in damages amounting to millions of dollars. The firm could also be ordered to carry out decontamination of the site, with a bill of millions more.