A sobering investigative report published Friday by Bloomberg puts into the perspective the lengths 3M and local governments have gone to obscure the severity of global exposure to PFOS, or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. And it wouldn’t have come to light if not for a tunnel project in Antwerp.
At the center of the controversy is the Oosterweel Link — a proposed subterranean tunnel that would connect ends of the R1, Antwerp’s not-quite-ring road. This tunnel would run in close proximity to a 3M plant, and directly under ground contaminated with PFOS, a “forever chemical” used in hydrophobic coatings that is almost impossible to eradicate from soil, water and the human body.
Much of the soil tested directly above the tunnel’s path was found to contain more than 3 micrograms of PFOS per kilogram of dirt, a level the regional Flemish government considers a health risk. Near the end of the tunnel closest to 3M’s facilities, the soil exceeds 300 micrograms in places.
Construction of the Oosterweel is currently on hold, after a secret arrangement between the tunnel’s builder, Lantis, and 3M to move truckloads of contaminated soil to the chemical producer’s grounds was stymied by residents and activists. Some soil had already been transported, and the plan was for the dirt to be assembled into a 21-foot-high “security wall” radiating toxins that experts have linked to high cholesterol, diabetes, hormone and immune disorders and testicular cancer, among many other things. From Bloomberg:
Last year details of a secret deal came out. In 2018, 3M struck a confidential agreement allowing the most toxic soil from the Oosterweel project to be dumped on its site, with a plan to create a toxic dirt wall of mind-boggling proportions: almost a mile long, 21 feet high, and at least 82 feet wide.
“The whole thing is crazy,” says Thomas Goorden, an activist who played a key role in revealing 3M’s contamination. “Essentially the government decided to suppress the whole PFOS story here in order to build a tunnel.” With Goorden’s help, citizens groups and nongovernmental organizations mounted legal challenges that have halted the construction of the tunnel and the toxic wall of dirt, at least for now.
The story has all the hallmarks of an environmental health crisis in the modern era, like corporate statements that prioritize brand reputation over doing right by the people you poisoned:
Through a spokesman, 3M denied any criminal behavior. “3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS and will continue to vigorously defend its record,” the spokesman said.
...the exploitation of nonsensical legal loopholes that would be hilarious if it didn’t directly shorten people’s life expectancies:
Lantis argued Flemish regulations allowed it to move the soil without treating it as toxic waste as long as it served a function, in this case a security wall. Lantis estimated it would cost €63 million to move all that soil. 3M’s cost would be €75,000.
...and government officials that have perfected the art of pointing fingers at everyone but themselves:
The parliamentary committee investigating the scandal issued its report at the end of March and concluded that 3M is to blame for the historical PFAS contamination in the area. It accused the company of not communicating openly about the pollution, but it didn’t hold anyone in government accountable, despite ministers approving the project.
Now 3M faces a criminal lawsuit in Belgium for illegally dumping waste. The piece is well worth a read, especially because this is a danger at everyone’s doorstep. 3M was named in an average of more than three PFOS-related lawsuits daily last year, per Bloomberg Law. 3M was aware of the consequences of PFOS exposure 50 years ago, but only in 2018 was it forced to settle a lawsuit from the Minnesota Attorney General for $850 million, in which it was let off the hook and permitted to admit no wrongdoing. It won’t be that easy in a criminal case.