AMSTERDAM: Anne Albers is the three-time Dutch longboard surf champion, but she can’t enjoy her “little surfing paradise” in Wijk aan Zee, a seaside village of about 2,000 people.
The town has the best waves in the Netherlands, but it’s also been struggling with serious health and environmental problems connected to Tata Steel, Europe’s second-biggest steel plant.
Locals have voiced concerns about the factory’s pollution for decades. However, it was only in September that the Dutch national public health agency first established a direct link between the plant and elevated lung-cancer rates and reduced life expectancy in the surrounding area.
While the company maintains that its emissions are within legal limits, when the wind blows from the south-east, where the plant is located, it covers Wijk aan Zee in black dust and leaves the foul smell of sulfur hanging in the air.
“I wasn’t concerned as a kid. Tata was just there,” said Albers, 27, who has lived in the town all her life. “But when I learned about the health risks I felt trapped in my own house. I think about moving every day and I’m afraid to have children here,” she said.
The Tata plant, which produces between 17,000 and 20,000 tonnes of high-quality steel a day, including for Volvo and Tesla, has been a source of pride in the Netherlands since it went into operation in 1920. It is one of the country’s largest industrial employers, supporting about 10,000 workers and many more jobs indirectly.
The company’s role as an economic juggernaut has made it untouchable for political parties and labuor unions, and meant that the Dutch government has taken a lenient approach towards regulating it.
That was made clear in another health-agency report in April, which concluded that both the government and Tata prioritised complying with the technicalities of emissions permits over the safety of the local population.
But the regulatory climate is changing, and the question now is whether Tata’s Indian parent company will want to keep the factory running even if that means spending millions on cleaning it up.
“In the past, when granting permits, we allowed economic interests to weigh heavily,” Vivianne Heijnen, caretaker State Secretary for Infrastructure, said in an interview.
“Now we have started to take other aspects more heavily into account, like the environmental and health aspects, and with this, we expect the health situation will improve.”
That, in turn, has put Wijk aan Zee and surrounding towns such as IJmuiden in a position that may soon become familiar to millions as the green transition forces fuel-burning companies to adapt to cleaner and more expensive technologies – having to balance environmental and health concerns with economic ones.
Dirk Weidema, 78, can see the steel plant from his living room in IJmuiden. He and his wife have lived in their house for over 50 years, but it wasn’t until Weidema retired a decade ago that he noticed what his industrial neighbour was up to during the day.
“I saw massive clouds of black dust appearing from the plant,” he said. “What is that, I wondered? I had never seen this before because I was always working during the week, and when I got home it was dark.”
Weidema decided to investigate. He suspected that the black clouds were caused by what manufacturers refer to as raw cokes. Cokes, an essential ingredient in steel, are made by heating coal in the absence of air.
When the process doesn’t go smoothly, it produces toxic black clouds like the ones Weidema saw spewing from Tata. He began documenting the factory’s emissions and sending evidence to local authorities.
The company has since been fined multiple times for emitting toxic raw cokes.
IJmuiden has two on-site coke plants. The quickest way to neutralise the health hazards to locals would be to shut them down. But that, said Tata Steel Nederland chief executive officer Hans van den Berg during an interview at the factory, would be financially devastating for the company.
Buying coke on the market rather than producing it in-house could cost up to 150mil per plant a year, he said, and shuttering one plant would eliminate 200 jobs. Closing both, he added, would get rid of “more than half of the company”.
Still, with public pressure mounting, Tata has adapted its approach in recent years. In 2020, the company announced its intent to become fully sustainable. It unveiled a plan to capture and store carbon dioxide underground, later replacing this with a strategy to retrofit the plant and make it hydrogen fuelled by 2030.
Tata had been in talks with the government over securing financial support for its green transition. But the surprise winner of the Netherlands’ Nov 22 election may complicate Tata’s efforts.
Geert Wilders, who is negotiating with potential coalition partners about forming the next government, has been vocal in his opposition to climate measures. He wants to stop reducing carbon-dioxide emissions and put key climate agreements “through the shredder”.
The situation is now up in the air. Public opposition to keeping the plant open combined with a lack of government support for sustainability measures could impact what the factory’s Indian parent company decides to do.
The IJmuiden site is Tata’s biggest steelworks outside of India, but Van den Berg worries that it’s also one of the company’s biggest headaches. “They say ‘you have your green transition – why is this all happening in the Netherlands? Are we still welcome there?’”
Meanwhile, as part of an effort to reduce costs and improve its position in the market, Tata Steel Nederland announced plans in November to cut 800 jobs.
It recently started operating a dedusting installation with the equivalent power of 20,000 household vacuum cleaners at one of its factories to reduce emissions of dust, lead and heavy metals.
Measures are also being taken towards becoming a “cleaner, greener and more circular steel company,” it said.
Efforts to reduce the plant’s emissions will have a positive impact in the future, but they won’t minimise the immediate health risks to residents.
During an interview at his office in Haarlem, Jeroen Olthof, the local governor of the province of Noord-Holland, expressed concern about acting quickly to minimise the threat.
Tata is in breach of its permit with every raw cokes emission, he said, adding that he has asked his legal team to look into whether he can rescind the company’s permit. — Bloomberg
Source: The Star