An agreement reached in 2017 between the contractor for a major public works contract and the 3M factory in Zwijndrecht near Antwerp is illegal, according to a Groen member of the Flemish parliament.
That view, from Mieke Schauvliege (Groen), is backed by Isabelle Larmuseau, one of the country’s leading authorities on environmental law. If their opinion prevails, it could end up costing the company millions.
Flashback: In 2017, a chemical known as PFOS was found to have been discharged from the 3M plant into the soil. The discovery was made when works started on the Oosterweel project, a massive public works project designed to complete the Antwerp ring-road on the western side, to link the port to the motorways network.
The discovery was made by the contractor BAM, now known as Lantis, and an agreement was reached with 3M on how to proceed.
For some reason, Lantis agreed to set aside its right to take future legal action, and 3M would pay €75,000 towards the clean-up costs. The Flemish government would then pick up the rest of the bill of some €63 million.
But the agreement is in breach of environment law, Schauvliege maintains. To be clear, Mieke Schauvliege is no relation to Joke Schauvliege (CD&V), who happened to be environment minister at the time.
The problem lies in the measures 3M were to take: the creation of a raised berm or embankment filled with the contaminated soil removed from the site, within a wall 1km long and 6.5m high, enough to enclose 135,000 cubic metres of soil – a quantity sufficient to fill the Royal Albert Hall 1.6 times over.
But the plan to use the embankment to enclose soil contaminated with 70 micrograms (µg) to 1000µg of PFOS per kilogram is illegal, Schauvliege and Larmuseau explained. The law at present limits the concentration of such sequestered soil to 70µg/kg.
According to environmental legislation, the highly polluted soil cannot simply be used for the construction of a berm, according to Larmuseau.
“That 135,000 cubic meters of contaminated soil actually has to go to a landfill or be remediated, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the land has been transferred to Lantis for 75,000 euros.”
Conclusion: both the agreement between Lantis and 3M, and the permit for the construction of the embankment, are illegal.
Construction of the embankment is due to begin on 1 July. The new committee of enquiry in the Flemish parliament has its first session to consider the PFOS question.