15 Nov 2023 at 05:02
More than thirty years ago, the RIVM proposed conducting research into the graphite rains in the vicinity of Tata Steel, according to research by NU.nl. Because the study was never carried out, local residents only learned in 2019 that it contained harmful substances.
Wijk aan Zee was hit several times by graphite rains from the Tata Steel site between 2016 and 2019. It caused great concern among local residents, who wondered whether it was dangerous to their health.
Research by the RIVM showed that the dust rain contained carcinogenic suit substances and the heavy metals lead, vanadium and manganese. This is particularly unhealthy for children who play outside and who ingest the dust through their hands, the RIVM researchers concluded.
That conclusion could have been drawn more than 25 years earlier, according to archive documents that NU.nl found during research for the podcast Tata’s iron grip. The municipality of Beverwijk contacted the RIVM in 1992 to investigate the graphite rains, which had also caused a lot of nuisance in Wijk aan Zee.
Investigators never engaged
The health institute wanted to find out what the “implications for public health” were, according to a research proposal from May 1992. But the RIVM experts pointed out that the research could only succeed if the municipality and the province of North Holland quickly reported when a graphite explosion occurred. had taken place. Researchers then had to immediately collect dust to analyze it in the laboratory.
That never seems to have happened. Not even when graphite emissions occurred again at Hoogovens, as Tata Steel was then called, in early 1993. The research had been proposed more than six months earlier.
Excerpt from the RIVM research proposal (May 1992).
Hoogovens only reported the graphite incident more than three hours after it occurred, according to reports from the province and the municipality. The province was very angry about this, after which an environmental employee of Hoogovens assured that there was “no need for cover-ups”.
The next morning, the municipality of Beverwijk carried out an inspection in Wijk aan Zee. Officials noted that there was a “clear deposition of dust particles” on cars. But according to a spokesperson for the RIVM, no measurements appear to have ever been carried out. The institute can no longer find out why. “We find no documentation about this in the archives.”
Incident report from the municipality of Beverwijk (February 1993)
Beverwijk threatened to take legal action
Remarkably, the municipality of Beverwijk had said a year earlier that it would no longer tolerate new graphite rains. The municipal council had even engaged a law firm and wrote in a letter to Hoogovens that it would go to court if another graphite incident occurred.
“At that time – which may sound very strange now – we were not talking about the health damage,” says Marjan Zoon, then environmental officer at the municipality of Beverwijk, in Tata’s iron grip. “It was about the settling of those particles of soot, that houses and cars were dirty.”
But if local residents didn’t complain too much about it, “then the board didn’t think it was that bad.” The legal threat was “more shouting than actually taking action,” Zoon thinks.
Slag processing now in hall
Tata Steel and subcontractor Harsco have now taken measures to prevent new graphite rains. The most recent incidents occurred during the processing of slag, a residual product from the steel process. This has been happening in a hall since 2020, so that any dust clouds can no longer reach the surrounding area.
In 2018 and 2019, Harsco was imposed a series of penalty payments due to the graphite rains. But the Council of State later determined that the province should not have imposed those fines totaling 450,000 euros. A criminal case by the Public Prosecution Service also largely ended in failure. The company ultimately only received a conditional fine of 5,000 euros for one incident in 2019.
There is currently another criminal investigation into Tata Steel and Harsco, after more than a thousand local residents filed a report. A year ago, the Public Prosecution Service conducted an investigation on the steel manufacturer’s premises, but since then it has been quiet about the case.
Local residents are still very concerned about the emissions from the steel factory. The RIVM recently calculated that residents of Wijk aan Zee live 2.5 months shorter due to the emissions of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide by Tata Steel.
The first three episodes of Tata’s iron grip can now be listened to via NU.nl, Spotify or Apple Podcasts. You can listen to episode four this week exclusively via NU.nl.