08 Nov 2023 at 05:03
Before Tata Steel became one of the most controversial companies in the Netherlands, the steel factory was very popular with local residents. “The Netherlands was pillarized. And in the IJmond you could say that Hoogovens had a kind of pillar of its own,” says an ex-employee.
Until the end of the last century, Tata Steel was still called ‘just’ Hoogovens. It was the pride of the region, a company that affected almost everyone in the surrounding villages. “The entire environment breathed – literally, but also figuratively – Hoogovens,” says former employee and former environmental inspector Jan Mol in the second episode of Tata’s iron grip, which can be listened to from Wednesday.
He worked for the company from 1975 to 1990, most of the years at the now infamous coke factory 2. This is now the target of critical residents of Tata Steel, who believe that the outdated and polluting factory should close as quickly as possible.
But forty years ago that was still a long way off. “Everyone had acquaintances or family who worked at Hoogovens,” says Mol. “From the pastry chef to the butcher to the toy store: everyone had the feeling that they lived from Hoogovens.”
Concerns about carcinogenic emissions
He himself came to work at Coking Factory 2 in 1978, which was only six years old at the time. But the factory still looked just as dirty as the then decades-old coking factory 1, which Mol describes as a “black stinking mess”. “It was a very dirty process.”
Around that time, more became known about the toxic emissions from the steel factory. Shortly after Mol came to work at coking factory 2, the company doctor at the Hoogovens reported that employees were possibly at risk from the carcinogenic PAH substances (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) coming from the factory. This was evident from research at coking factories in England.
“The management of Hoogovens became worried and we became worried,” says Mol, who was also active within the union. “Then everyone who had to work at the factory and who might ingest toxic substances was given an ‘Airstream helmet’. A helmet with a fan and a filter. Then you got clean air instead of that potentially PAH-containing air.”
‘Employee health first’
Work was also underway to plug leaks in the factory. That resulted in significant improvements, Mol saw.
“The first priority was the health of the employees,” he reflects. “We did not realize that the environment was also exposed to this. That was not something we were concerned about at all.”
It became clear to the management of Hoogovens and the province of North Holland in the 1970s that the carcinogenic PAH substances from the coke factories also ended up in the environment, according to an old report. In the 1980s, the province initiated a procedure to have the factory’s leaking doors replaced. But that plan was scrapped again when an environmental agreement was concluded with the company in 1988, NU.nl revealed last week.
‘Always thought permits were too broad’
Mol started working for that province in 1991 as an environmental inspector. He became responsible for enforcing the permits at his former employer.
“As environmental inspectors involved with Hoogovens, we sometimes had the feeling that we had to compete with everyone,” he says about that time. They wanted to be strict, but that was not always appreciated. “Because both Hoogovens, public opinion and our own licensing authorities were not very keen if we came up with a penalty or an official report.”
“As an enforcer, I always thought Hoogovens’ permits were too broad at the time,” says Mol. He saw that provincial licensing authorities were doing their best, but that as a major employer and industrial power the company also had a “huge lobby”. The economic interest often took precedence – not only in the government, but also in the surrounding area.
This became apparent, for example, when graphite rains descended on Wijk aan Zee in the early 1990s. The village was covered in a heavy layer of dust on several occasions and residents were given vouchers to take their cars through the car wash for free. “Their biggest concern was that their car had become dirty,” Mol said. “And if Hoogovens had it cleaned… People may well have been dissatisfied, but then the sounds from the environment would quiet down.”
Tata’s iron grip can be listened to via NU.nl, Spotify or Apple Podcasts.
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