Flemish waste agency buried pollution news ‘on minister’s order’

Flemish waste agency buried pollution news ‘on minister’s order’
The 3M plant at the centre of the pollution. Credit: Belga

The Flemish waste agency OVAM failed to inform the public about soil pollution caused by the chemical PFOS in 2017 under orders from a Flemish minister at the time.

That is the claim made yesterday by Henny De Baets, chief executive of the agency. OVAM came under fire earlier in the week because a press release, prepared in 2017 to announce the discovery of PFOS in ground being prepared for the Oosterweel ring-road project in Antwerp, had never been sent out.

PFOS, or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, is a chemical hazardous to human and animal health. Since the latest issue emerged, people living within a radius of 15km of the source – the 3M plant at Zwijndrecht – have been advised to eat no more than two eggs a week laid in the area. Those guidelines were later refined by the Flemish government.

The VRT already revealed that the Antwerp city council under then-mayor Patrick Janssen (sp.a) and the Flemish government of Geert Bourgeois (N-VA) had been informed in 2017 of the discovery. But a press release from OVAM that would have informed the wider world was never sent out.

In a communique distributed by her lawyer yesterday, De Baets speaks of "injudicious allegations" in her regard, in relation to the burial of the information. The decision not to issue the press release, she says, was due to "a ministerial decision at the time".

The communique names no names, but the accusation most likely refers to Joke Schauvliege (CD&V), who was environment minister at the time, and had been since July 2014.

The 3M Oosterweel case is a complex and multidisciplinary case,” De Baets writes.

Society is entitled to the truth and to a complete dossier. I deeply regret that there is no serene dialogue today and that one false suspicion after another tendentious insinuation is being spread. Depending on who can benefit from it, there is daily, partial or coloured leakage, not to inform the citizen, but to score points at someone else's cost. I am not participating in this. My substantive communication always went to my minister, as it should be.”

The decision to retract the press release was not her own, she stressed, nor that of any of her colleagues at OVAM.

Despite De Baets’ reticence, however, others are only too happy to point the finger. According to De Tijd, which has had access to internal e-mails, one of Schauvliege’s staff first asked OVAM for a ‘positive’ press release on the PFOS problem, which was received the following day. From that point on, it was no longer to be found.

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