The final report of the PFOS Commission of Inquiry was presented in the Flemish Parliament yesterday nine months after the outbreak of the PFOS scandal in the Antwerp municipality of Zwijndrecht,
In its conclusions, the report explicitly designates 3M as responsible for the historical pollution, but does not designate a responsible politician.
However the following amendment has been suggested / introduced …
When in 2017 it turned out that the PFOS pollution around 3M reached further than initially thought, all scientific knowledge was available to understand the seriousness of this, map the pollution and take measures to limit the impact on people and the environment.
A number of political decisions, in addition to the elements described above, had an important impact on the course. The Commission of Inquiry distinguishes four matters in this regard:
The ongoing savings and decisions that have resulted in the government not being able to fulfill its core task of protecting people and the environment, in terms of knowledge gathering, licensing and enforcement.
The great political pressure to start the Oosterweel works on time and to limit the costs for this project. The PFOS pollution was estimated by the Political Steering Committee as “the main remaining risk for a timely start of works” of the infrastructure works on the Left Bank (the first phase of the Oosterweel Works). The Steering Committee asked the various Flemish administrations to develop an action plan “that will keep the financial risks of the project manageable” and to agree on communication. In this way, explicit or implicit pressure was put on the administrations involved to look for solutions that would primarily limit both the financial cost and the impact on the timing of the works.
Insufficient data and expertise were brought together – scientific knowledge, knowledge of international cases, as well as soil and other measurements – to investigate the risk to public health.
However, much of this knowledge was shared by various actors involved.
- The conclusions of this risk assessment were subsequently incorrectly communicated by BAM/Lantis to the Political Steering Committee. Where OVAM spoke of an “uncertainty” about exposure in residential areas and insisted on measurements in the residential area, BAM/Lantis claimed that there was “certainty” that there could be “no risk” for humans in Zwijndrecht. There was no factual basis for that.
- The assessment values for the treatment of the polluted soils on the Oosterweel site were determined by a temporary trading company that is closely involved in almost all aspects of the Oosterweel project and appears to be closely intertwined with BAM/Lantis. In this determination, too, outdated scientific knowledge was used without sufficient motivation, while the most recent knowledge was known.
- OVAM pointed to the use of this outdated data and the use of incorrect methods, but nevertheless agreed to this assessment framework. As a motivation for this, it referred, among other things, to “the far-reaching economic consequences of delay for this file, and the scope and costs of the necessary further investigation”.
- BAM/Lantis negotiated with the VMM about discharge standards for groundwater contaminated with PFOS, invariably aiming for higher standards. These negotiations were based on ‘realism’ and technical feasibility, rather than scientific, environmental and health elements. BAM/Lantis continuously provided feedback with polluter 3M.
The conclusion of a settlement between BAM/Lantis and 3M, with the knowledge of the competent minister, without debate and without escalation to the government. In the settlement it was agreed to store heavily polluted soil in a construction with the misleading name ‘safety berm’. In the meantime, several legal questions have been raised about the content of this settlement. It is unclear to what extent the settlement could form an obstacle to recovering these costs from the cause of the pollution, 3M, according to the ‘polluter pays’ principle.
The decision of the Weyts and Schauvliege cabinets, in consultation with BAM/Lantis and OVAM, not to set up any communication about PFOS pollution, in contrast to the earlier decision of the Political Steering Committee. It was not decided to immediately take soil or other samples to gain clarity about the human toxicological risk in residential areas, but to strictly follow the soil decree. This meant that no samples would be taken in residential areas in the short term. The political steering committee has implicitly endorsed this decision by not objecting to this, by not putting it back on the agenda in a subsequent PSC and by agreeing to BAM’s budget increase in December 2017. Would there have been more rapid insight into the extent of the pollution and the risks in the residential area, ‘no regret’ measures could have been taken much earlier to prevent years of exposure.
3M is the sole responsible and no political responsibility.
This shows the limits of democracy in Flanders.
Environmental justice is not around the corner yet.
This leaves the option to 3M to start legal proceedings to share responsibility with others because everyone knows that some politicians were also responsible for this fiasco. I would even recommend 3M to go further so as to create a precedent in placing joint responsibility on politicians. Ironically, 3M would do the world a favour.