There is no question of Tata Steel only taking environmental measures when the government intervenes. “We can be more proactive. I recognize that,” says director Hans van den Berg. But he distances himself from the regulator’s harsh criticism.
NU.nl spoke extensively with Van den Berg for the latest episode of the podcast Tata’s iron grip. In his office in IJmuiden, the director of the steel factory talks about the fines imposed on the company, his attempts to change the corporate culture, and the plans to make climate-friendly steel.
We are here for the podcast Tata’s Iron Grip. What do you actually think of that title?
“It’s a pretty strong title. It’s also a bit confrontational, that’s how he feels. Because we are doing our utmost to reach out and enter into dialogue. And because of that image, that it is all in one go.” to nullify.”
“We try to position ourselves as part of society here, which we have been for a long time. And to play a good role in that, to listen to the environment.”
Do you recognize the image that the area was under the control of this company, at least in the past?
“I’ve thought about that. I came to work here in 1990, so I worked at the Hoogovens (the former name of Tata Steel, ed.) for many years. And I tried to imagine how we thought and operated there at the time. I don’t recognize the image of ‘we have the environment under control’ from there.”
“There was a lot of pride in the company, also in the area. Many people work at the company. We also undertake all kinds of activities such as a chess tournament and a business school where we train many people. That was the image I had deeper into the organization – and still have it, by the way.”
You say that the environment is now a central focus of Tata Steel. How do you try to convey that within the company? Changing a corporate culture is not easy.
“Yes, that is a big change in the company, but also a big change in myself. The dialogue with the outside world plays an important role in this. For the last three years I have been present at Springtij, a forum on Terschelling. That is very focused on nature, climate change, people who are very concerned about that.”
“In the dialogue with many of these people, I have also come to an adjustment of the moral compass, let me put it this way. That has become much more important for me personally. Fortunately, I also have a position in which I can do something about it. “That often doesn’t happen fast enough. I understand that. We also want more speed. I try to bring the outside world in as best I can.”
“I also try to arrive at an intrinsic motivation. When something happens, we don’t think: oh dear, we are outside the permit. No, that we think: what does that actually mean for the area and for the environment? Are we aware of the fact that if we operate in this way, for example, we cause noise pollution when it is not necessary? From the point of view of doing the right thing for the area and for the environment. That is quite a long road.”
The regulator has placed your coke gas factories under increased supervision. Mario Bakker, director of supervision and enforcement at the North Sea Canal Area Environmental Service, speaks of a “calculating” corporate culture. “You see that some measures are only taken when we tighten the thumbscrews.” That’s quite a different picture than you just painted.
“Yes, it is. I read it too. I’m having serious trouble with that.”
“I think this is an incorrect representation of things. I think this organization is working very hard, especially now with the intensive supervision. Which I understand perfectly. Of course there must be supervision. I understand all that. But I think the way it is formulated here is out of order.”
It has cost a lot of penalty payments to reduce the number of incidents involving ‘uncooked cooks’. Isn’t it actually true that the thumbscrews had to be tightened before emissions were reduced due to such production errors?
“We have paid a lot of attention to raw coke, but also to other environmental performance. The organization has been working hard on this, including penalty payments from the start.”
“I don’t recognize this culture of: ‘If we just tighten our thumbs, something will happen’. We can be more proactive. I do recognize that. But the way it is presented here, I really distance myself from that.”
It’s not like you thought: 100,000 euros at a time, that would be a bit excessive. Then should we intervene now?
“Absolutely not. Receiving penalty payments is a very negative moment. And we experience that as very negative, no matter how high the fine is.”
There is constant criticism of your company. You will be personally called to the House of Representatives, and according to criminal lawyer Benedicte Ficq you will even have to go to prison. When you wake up, do you ever think: now I don’t feel like being director here for a day?
“That doesn’t actually happen. That’s because I stand for the company. We have a unique opportunity here in the IJmond to make major steps forward. The 5 megaton CO2 reduction that we can achieve here, the integration of the company into the entire energy system in the Netherlands, with hydrogen but also green energy from the sea… We are in a great position to achieve that progress. That’s where I get a lot of my energy from.”
“We also have to deal with the concerns of people in the area on a daily basis. But it is not the case that I wake up in the morning and think: ‘Well, I would like to give up’. Absolutely not.”
You speak to the government about subsidies for your green plans. Why is that actually necessary? Shouldn’t your company be able to hold its own pants?
“There are actually two main arguments for this. One is the speed at which the transition must take place. Look, ultimately all steel will be green. I think we can really lead the way, or at least be in the leading group in Europe. The question is when the market really starts to pay for it completely, because everything must ultimately be included in the price of the product.”
“The steel will be more expensive to make, so those prices will also go up. We see in our assumptions and calculations that this will be slower than we want to make it. And we have to make it in connection with climate agreements. So we have a lot of support is needed to overcome that hurdle.”
“And the second is that in Europe the competitors are actually all already making agreements. Or have already made agreements with their governments. That is of course an important argument from the company’s perspective, because you don’t want to start with a financial disadvantage. .”
That sounds a bit like: Jantje jumps into the ditch, so we have to too.
Yes, but Jantje is in the ditch. We cannot remain standing, we have to get to the other side. The energy transition, reducing emissions… This must happen for the future of the company.
In your green steel plan, one coking gas plant and one blast furnace will close before 2030. As you know, many organizations want to close the coking gas plant by 2025, or even before that. Is such an earlier closure still a point of negotiation with the government?
“For various reasons, we have not included the earlier closure of the coke gas factory in the plan. One of the most important is that the latest RIVM report indicates that particulate matter and nitrogen oxides are the substances with the most impact on life expectancy, in addition to stress due to nuisance. The coke gas factory is not the largest source of particulate matter. That is the blowing away of raw materials. So that is why we have included roofs for this in the plan. I think that in money terms it is about the same.”
“There are also other reasons not to include that in the plan. It is a huge operation to import such a quantity of coke from somewhere else, to transship it and to use it in the installations. With greater environmental effects, which are partly take place elsewhere.”
“It is also very expensive. And then you are talking about two or three years… I understand that people want that, and that that is important, but we think: we have to opt for something that actually makes sense.”
The recent RIVM report shows that many people suffer from Tata Steel, and that residents of Wijk aan Zee live on average 2.5 months shorter due to your emissions. If the RIVM produces such a report again in 2040, what will it contain?
“It cannot be otherwise than that the RIVM will observe major progress in 2040.”
Could it be that people in Wijk aan Zee no longer notice you? Or will it always remain that way, because it is just a huge factory?
“I think it is almost impossible that there will be nothing to complain about at all. We will always have transport. Trains will run, ships will sail. But we will do that and organize it in a very responsible way. “
“We will also have to continuously improve on this, wherever we are in 2030 or 2040.”
Is the goal then zero impact on health in the area?
“Definitely a minimization. For sure.”
The first six episodes of Tata’s iron grip can now be listened to via NU.nl, Spotify or Apple Podcasts. You can listen to the final episode exclusively this week via NU.nl.