Flemish minister for public works, Lydia Peeters (Open VLD), has ordered the suspension of some construction works on the Oosterweel project until further notice.
The decision concerns works that are being carried out in areas where the soil is most heavily polluted with PFOS, the hazardous chemical produced by a 3M manufacturing plant at Zwijndrecht, a municipality adjacent to Antwerp.
It was during early works on the Oosterweel project – which will eventually complete the Antwerp ring road and allow trucks from the port easier access to roads north and east to the Netherlands and Germany – that the problem of PFOS was first encountered.
However the Oosterweel project, named after one of the local villages that was demolished to make way for the expansion of the port of Antwerp, was such a sensitive issue that works has to be allowed to continue come what may. From initial evidence, it appears there was a conspiracy of silence on the PFOS issue dating back to 2017.
That lasted until last month, when the issue was raised again in the Flemish parliament, leading current environment minister Zuhal Demir (N-VA) to express support for a committee of enquiry into the matter – a position that did not find favour with either her own party or their coalition partners.
However a committee has now been set up, chaired by an opposition socialist to avoid accusations of cronyism, and its work is underway.
In the meantime, Peeters has ordered a halt to works on parts of the Oosterweel project where the soil is most badly polluted with PFOS, until such time as the expert committee she appointed has delivered its report into the effects of the works – and particularly the soil-works involved – on people living in the area.
The committee is chaired by Professor Karl Vrancken, research manager at the Flemish Institute for Technological Research. Members include toxicologist Prof. Jan Tytgat, Dr. Nicolas Van Larebeke, expert in environmental chemistry, and Karen Polfliet, environmental adviser to the port of Ghent.
Peeters is expecting the experts’ first report by 15 July, and until then work will stop at the worst-affected areas of the project, in agreement with the site managers Lantis.
“Lantis has given me that assurance,” Peeters said.
“The committee will pay a first visit to the Oosterweel site so that it can objectively and neutrally determine whether the current working methods are sufficient to protect public health. Only when it gives the green light will I allow the work in the most polluted grounds to continue,” she said.