American industrial group 3M has, for the first time, commented on the contamination of the ground around Zwijndrecht, Antwerp, with PFOS, which can cause all sorts of health problems, including cancer, after weeks of silence on the issue.
This afternoon, the company will publicly respond to the incident during a hearing by the Environment Committee of the Flemish Parliament, where experts from Belgium and further abroad and representatives from 3M will be present.
In the run-up to its appearance in parliament, 3M has sent out a press release, of which the full version was published by VRT News, in which it stated that it understands there are many questions around this incident.
"We take our responsibility to our employees, customers and the community in which we operate very seriously," said the company, which has also promised to "fulfil further remedial responsibilities".
"We have already had a first constructive and open discussion with PFOS commissioner Karl Vrancken" (who will also be present during the hearing this afternoon), the company said, adding that it will continue to work closely with Vrancken and all relevant authorities to help where it can.
In the statement, 3M argued that it complies with the rules, but that it is working together with regional authorities to fix the issues, whilst investing in order to remediate the soil and groundwater.
Meanwhile, 3M is carrying out an extensive soil survey on behalf of the Public Waste Agency of Flanders (OVAM) to analyse how serious the pollution is. Based on the results, it will be determined whether current containment measures are sufficient or whether additional measures need to be taken.
The issue at hand
Large amounts of PFOS, or perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, a chemical hazardous to human and animal health, were discovered in 2018 in the ground near the 3M site, where it produced the harmful substance until 2002, through the excavation works for the Oosterweel link project.
Recently, it came out that authorities already knew about the problem before then, but the contamination of the ground was kept secret, and that 3M paid a €75,000 settlement to Lantis, the developer of the project, allowing the construction of the ongoing project, which had been delayed for several other reasons, to go ahead, rather than being threatened by years of delay.
"The agreement with Lantis only relates to the joint remediation efforts of 3M and Lantis during the Oosterweel works. We will therefore fulfil further remediation responsibilities as determined by OVAM," the company said about this settlement in the press release.
No samples were taken from the ground since the problem was first discovered, until this year, when the municipality of Zwijndrecht itself took samples and came to alarming conclusions.
Only now have measures been taken, as people living within a radius of 15km from Zwijndrecht being advised not to consume eggs laid in their own or anyone’s else’s gardens, whilst pregnant women and children also have to watch out for vegetables from one's own garden.
It also resulted in another enquiry being set up in the Flemish Parliament to examine who carries the political responsibility for this environmental disaster.
If 3M is held responsible, it could be in charge of the clean-up of the land in and around the Zwijndrecht plant, a bill which could run to hundreds of millions of euros.
The hearing of the Environment Committee of the Flemish Parliament will start at 2:00 PM on Tuesday.