Risks for local residents from industrial emissions
The Dutch Safety Board has investigated the way in which citizens in the Netherlands are protected against the risks of industrial emissions. Exposure to industrial substances can cause damage to health. This can be due to one-off emissions, but also due to an accumulation of emitted substances over time. Part of the research is the extent to which health effects for local residents are taken into account when permitting and monitoring long-term industrial emissions.
The Dutch Safety Board has investigated the situation around Tata Steel (IJmuiden), Chemours (Dordrecht) and Asfaltfabriek Nijmegen (APN). The Dutch Safety Board draws lessons that can be applied to other regions.
Better protection against industrial emissions is possible and necessary
The health of people living close to industrial facilities deserves better protection from companies, local government authorities and environmental services. Local governments and environmental services do not use all the resources available to them to reduce industrial emissions and to ensure that companies are compliant with existing standards and regulations. They also do not systematically assess risks to health, and do not always have a full picture of the scale of emissions. This is stated by the Dutch Safety Board in the report published today: ’Industry and local residents’. The Dutch Safety Board’s investigation started at Tata Steel in IJmuiden and was subsequently extended to Chemours in Dordrecht and Asfalt Productie Nijmegen.
Make better use of legislation and regulations
Industrial companies are an integral part of our society. They create employment and manufacture the goods we use on a daily basis. Companies are bound by rules regarding the safety of their products and the way they are manufactured. This is laid down in legislation and the system of standards for the permitted emissions, and the system of granting permits, supervision and enforcement. The aim of all these forms of legislation and regulations is to protect local residents against the harmful effects of industry. The three companies investigated differ considerably in terms of their size and impact on their surroundings. Nevertheless, the Safety Board has noted that the three companies they investigated generally take little initiative to reduce their own emissions more than what is permitted. In the opinion of the Dutch Safety Board, the one-sided focus on permit compliance is a source of vulnerability. This is not always sufficient to ensure that the exposure of local residents to harmful emissions remains low enough. Any emissions that remain following technical intervention are now considered safe, unless it is demonstrated that they are unsafe. The burden of proof for demonstrating that a substance is harmful above a certain concentration lies with the authorities. The Dutch Safety Board notes that the government authorities often react reactively due to a lack of knowledge, capacity and sense of urgency. In this way, harmful emissions can continue for a long time.
Mistrust by local residents
The Dutch Safety Board started the investigation in response to reports from local residents. Local residents expressed their concerns about their health and safety due to the presence of local industry. In their opinion, local government and the company concerned paid insufficient attention to their worries. Government authorities and companies are often uncertain how to deal with the concerns of local residents. They fall back on procedural answers such as ‘the company is in compliance with the permit’. If local residents or the media apply further pressure, government authorities and companies do respond, but not in a way that gives local residents a sense of being listened to or reducing their worries. The health risks are still not considered and there is no new approach aimed at better managing risks. This is the origin of the mistrust among local residents of government authorities and companies.
Conclusions and recommendations
The Safety Board notes a reactive attitude on the part of both companies and government authorities in protecting the health of local residents against harmful industrial emissions. The Safety Board argues that companies have a responsibility to be transparent about the contribution of their emissions to the risks to the health of local residents. Companies need to play a more active role in sharing knowledge about their emissions and reducing the level of those emissions, even if they prove to be harmful over time. Local government authorities and environmental services should use the existing system of granting permits, supervision and enforcement to better protect the health of local residents. This requires a better level of knowledge in order to act as an equal discussion partner with industry and a proactive attitude to keeping the permits up to date. For local residents, all that really matters are the consequences of exposure to harmful emitted substances. According to the Dutch Safety Board, this exposure must be the starting point for all parties. That is even more important in the case of substances that do not naturally degrade in the environment, since exposure to these substances can be prolonged. This in turn means that assessments must be conducted more often and more systematically, to identify precisely which substances people are exposed to and the resultant health risks. Finally, the Safety Board calls upon the Minister for the Environment, alongside the government, to support local government authorities through the provision of other knowledge, capacity and practical, uniform legislation.
The investigation exposes the fact that improvements must be achieved in protecting the health of local residents against harmful industrial emissions. There is a tangible mistrust of industry and government, among local residents.
The Dutch Safety Board issues the following recommendations:
To Tata Steel, Chemours and APN:
1. Fully implement the legal obligation and social responsibility of companies to protect the health of local residents against harmful industrial emissions.
a. At least ensure a clear understanding of your own production processes and the contribution of your own emissions to exposure levels and health risks of local residents. Invest in investigating and filling knowledge gaps.
b. At least ensure a reduction in the exposure of local residents to harmful substances emitted by the company, as soon as increased risks to health are revealed.
c. Use the expertise of the company to reduce the exposure of local residents to harmful persistent substances emitted by the company in the past, if increased health risks emerge.
2. Ensure that the above recommendation is brought to the attention of members and sector organizations active in these sectors.
To the provinces of Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland and the municipality of Nijmegen, as competent authority:
3. Ensure that you are making full use of all possibilities within the current system of rules and regulations to protect the health of local residents against harmful industrial emissions. Where this is not the case, adapt your procedures. At least ensure:
a. An understanding of the emissions from companies. Regularly test the emission overview for completeness and correctness.
b. An assessment of the health risks per substance to which local residents are exposed. Do this at regular intervals and take uncertainty into account. Ensure that you have the necessary information about exposure and the health effects of substances.
c. More restricted permitted emissions when necessary for the health risks for local residents.
d. Timely implementation of BATs by companies.
e. Exchange of knowledge and experience with other competent authorities and environmental agencies.
To Tata Steel, Chemours and APN, to the provinces of Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland and the municipality of Nijmegen and to the environmental agencies DCMR, Noordzeekanaalgebied and Regio Nijmegen:
4. Make full use of the system for protecting the health of local residents against harmful industrial emissions. Communicate proactively and be transparent about incidents, concerns and complaints in order to regain the trust of local residents.
To the Minister for the Environment:
5. In collaboration with the Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport and the Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, ensure that competent authorities and environmental agencies are able to fully live up to their responsibility for the process of issuing permits, supervision and enforcement of industrial companies, to better protect the health of local residents. Take into account at least the level of knowledge, the capacity and the feasibility and uniformity of legislation.
6. Encourage the development of knowledge about the health effects and risks of substances emitted by industry and ensure that both government and companies use this knowledge, in order to protect the health of local residents.
7. Ensure that the precautionary principle weighs more heavily in the system of permitting for persistent substances.
To the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment:
8.Together with the Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport, investigate how environmental agencies can have knowledge of the health effects and health risks of substances emitted by industry.
- Chemical industry (including Seveso companies)
- Chemical industry (including Seveso companies)