Nov 22, 2023 at 5:04 AM Update: a minute ago
Tata Steel is still not adhering to environmental agreements that the steel factory and its peers made with the government in 1992. The metal sector has still not achieved the targets for particulate matter and nitrogen, among other things, according to research by NU.nl.
The Dutch base metal industry, with the steel factory in IJmuiden as by far the largest company, concluded an environmental agreement with the central government in 1992. The sector pledged to significantly reduce pollutant emissions. Targets were set for emissions in 2000 and 2010 for each substance. In many cases, emissions had to be reduced by 90 percent or more.
But many of those goals have still not been achieved, according to calculations by NU.nl for the podcast Tata’s iron grip. Tata Steel alone still emits much more particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen than the entire sector was allowed to emit according to the agreements in 2010.
The agreements seem to have been forgotten. The covenant can no longer be found online, but NU.nl found a copy in the National Archives. It shows that the base metal industry promised to emit a maximum of 363 tons of particulate matter in 2010. But that goal is still far from being achieved: Tata Steel single-handedly emitted more than 600 tons of particulate matter in 2021.
The target sulfur emissions for the year 2010 were 1,600 tons, but Tata Steel now emits more than 2,700 tons annually. With regard to nitrogen oxide emissions, the target for 2010 is even further away: 880 tonnes could be left for the entire sector, but Tata still accounts for more than 5,000 tonnes of nitrogen emissions every year.
The government itself never published sums
It was already clear in the 1990s that the goals were only achievable with major improvements at Hoogovens, as Tata Steel was still called until 1999. That was by far the largest polluter in the industry, responsible for, for example, 80 percent of all particulate matter and sulfur emissions.
It is not without reason that then Hoogovens CEO Olivier van Royen was the first chairman of the foundation to consult with the government on behalf of the sector. His signature is also on the environmental agreement, as are those of three ministers and representatives of the Dutch provinces, municipalities and water boards.
Remarkably, the government itself never seems to have published whether the targets for the year 2010 had been achieved. An interim report on the environmental agreements with various industries was last published in 2008, but after 2010 a ‘final score’ was never sent to the House of Representatives.
Heavy metal emissions down after lawsuit
Some goals from the environmental agreement with the base metal industry have now been achieved. This concerns, for example, the emissions of various heavy metals and fluorides. At Tata Steel, far fewer heavy metals have been released into the air since 2013, because a new environmental installation was put into use.
But that environmental installation came about because residents of Tata Steel filed a lawsuit in 2007 against the steel factory’s new permit. They forced a fabric filter to be installed at the sinter plant, even though the province itself had not included this in the permit.
‘State of the art’ was sufficient
Without the fabric filter, heavy metal emissions would also have remained higher than agreed in the environmental agreement. But the agreements with the metal companies were not a reason for the province to tighten Tata Steel’s permit.
“You don’t test that in a permit,” says then licensing authority Wim Bakker in the podcast Tata’s iron grip. “That has no legal status.” When drawing up the permit, the province only looked at whether the factory met the “state of the art” and whether the local air quality met the legal standards.
“The tradition of voluntary agreements from which major polluters benefit is as persistent as the unhealthy air in the Netherlands,” responds Willem Wiskerke of Greenpeace. The environmental organization wants stricter legal standards for air quality. “And it should be possible to close outdated and polluting factories, even if they have received an environmental permit in the past.”
Ministry had been warned
The Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment (VROM) was warned that the environmental agreements were unenforceable. From the late 1980s onwards, the ministry focused on the so-called ‘target group policy’. This meant that it made agreements with industries about reducing the environmental burden. Voluntary covenants would yield more than binding regulations, was the thinking of the Lubbers cabinets.
But a top ministry official at the time says that he immediately warned that voluntary agreements would not yield sufficient results. “Then my head was almost chopped off. That was a very sensitive issue.”
The environmental agreements with the industries stated that they had an obligation to make efforts to achieve the goals. But in case of economic or technical setbacks they were allowed to deviate from it. Moreover, the agreements applied to the entire sector, but individual companies could not be held to them.
“I have had a lot of internal battles about this within the ministry,” says the former civil servant. “From ‘boys, you are handing things over here’. It is better to tighten things up step by step through regulations. When you leave the responsibility to a company and it becomes really difficult, they say: ‘We cannot do that .’ That’s how it happened.”
‘Only false certainties’
There were also immediate concerns in the House of Representatives about the agreements with the base metal industry. In 1992, for example, SGP MP Koos van den Berg feared that the agreement “only offers false guarantees”. Then-PvdA minister Hans Alders responded that environmental policy is “a process of trial and error”.
The RIVM recently calculated that residents of Wijk aan Zee live on average 2.5 months shorter due to Tata Steel’s emissions. This is mainly because they inhale more particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, two of the substances for which environmental targets were set that have not been achieved.
Tata Steel has not responded substantively to NU.nl’s findings. A spokesperson said the company’s emissions have fallen in recent years and environmental improvements are still being made.
The first four episodes of Tata’s iron grip can now be listened to via NU.nl, Spotify or Apple Podcasts. You can listen to episode five this week exclusively via NU.nl.