Atie Zandbergen peers through the gate of Tata Steel. “I see a cloud of dust there…” She points into the distance. “A small feather with a bit of orange dust. There at the fluorine scrubbers of the pellet factory. Can you see it?”
The reporter has no idea – there are ten clouds.
An average Dutch person on a dune top near Wijk aan Zee sees a maze of chimneys, factories, white and black plumes of smoke and pipes: the steel factory of Tata Steel. Atie Zandbergen sees permits and violations – such as that orange cloud. As an inspector at the North Sea Canal Area Environment Agency, she oversees one of the country’s most hated factories. She checks that Tata Steel, a complex with actually seventeen factories, works according to the permits. That’s several hundred.
The steel factory (9,000 employees) of the Indian Tata group is under fire because it causes a lot of nuisance to local residents. The factory emits a lot of fine and coarse dust. Ore is blown from the ore mountains. And the factory smells really bad. This often happens within the standards and permit frameworks, sometimes not. There are relatively many health problems in the region, such as lung cancer and stomach and skin complaints.
Local residents wonder: why is all this allowed? Why is no one intervening? And what does the environmental service actually do?
Zandbergen leans on her eyes and nose for her work. Sometimes, such as today, the cheerful inspector – 28 years in the business – strolls along the factory fence for hours, keeping an eye on the dust clouds. Occasionally she is there at night trying to distinguish scents from a dune top. Which factory stinks, and with which wind direction? The supervisor knows the smells, from the tar smell of the coking plant to the phenol smoke from the oxygen steel plant.
It always revolves around one question: does the factory comply with the environmental regulations set by its permits? Most of the time. If there is then a nuisance, you can at most have an informal conversation. “Then you say: dude, this stinks, is there anything that can be done about it?” Tata Steel often does quite a bit, says Zandbergen. Replacing a valve, for example.
Occasionally, Atie Zangbergen is around the Tata site at night, trying to distinguish scents from a dune top
Sometimes raw coke – processed coal, essential in steelmaking – is released, with the aging coking plant emitting black smoke. That’s not allowed. Each time it costs Tata Steel a penalty of 25,000 euros.
“Local residents then ask: why can’t the factory just close?”, says Zandbergen. But that is not just possible in the Netherlands. “There are quite a few steps between a penalty and closing.”
In IJmuiden, this reality clashes with the residents’ perception on a daily basis. Zandbergen and the environmental service are somewhere in between. The Randstad Court of Audit stated at the beginning of this year that the service is being mixed up between the factory, legal reality, residents’ expectations and political pressure from the province to take tough action.
Enough examples. If Zandbergen is going to measure noise nuisance overnight in the center of Wijk aan Zee and determines that it remains within the standard, local residents will email plenty of complaints the next morning. Local residents approach the service so often that it is difficult to keep up with it, according to the Randstad Court of Audit. Result: they receive a standard e-mail back and do not feel heard. Add to that the numerous critical reports on the functioning of environmental services, and trust drops to zero.
Tata Steel really doesn’t get away with everything, says Zandbergen. It is true that the inspectors cannot see everything, but that is also the case at other factories in the Netherlands. Companies have to report every incident themselves, and Tata almost always does that, according to Zandbergen. Since the penalty for the coke factory, the number of reports of raw coke emissions has fallen sharply, she says.
And the reports from citizens? According to Zandbergen, these are useful, for example, to see in which wind direction nuisance occurs. “We really look at them,” she says, “even if we don’t respond directly ourselves. We sometimes receive twenty reports a day.”
A car stops at the bottom of the dune edge. The window goes down. “Are you from the environmental department or something?” When he gets an affirmative answer, the man, an employee of Tata, says: “Do you know how many families you destroy by denigrating Tata? You are not interested in that.”
Also read: Tata Steel: a steel factory without friends
Zandbergen is used to something. Her response to a complaint from a resident once appeared in full on Facebook, with her own name underneath. Accompanied by cynical commentary: you see, they say there’s nothing wrong!
As a supervisor you never do well, Zandbergen knows. That’s part of it. And it’s nice work: you come to many places and you can ask anything. But it does touch her when she is addressed “as a person.” “I just do my best here at night and during the day.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 10 July 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of July 10, 2021