Amended conditions of Umicore's environmental permit in Hoboken remain in force
Umicore notes the decision by Flemish Minister of Environment, Zuhal Demir, in which she confirms the recently amended conditions in the environmental permit for its recycling site in Hoboken, Belgium.
Umicore had appealed an earlier decision by the Province of Antwerp and had asked for understanding for the environmental technical feasibility of these stricter permit conditions for the site. Umicore had therefore requested these conditions to be linked to a reliable and scientific measurement method, in consultation with the authorities. Clearly, Umicore does not oppose extensive efforts to reduce the blood lead levels of children in the neighborhood of the site to the lowest possible levels. Umicore will continue to do its utmost to protect the health of children living in the area and will remain committed to improving its environmental performance.
"As a responsible company, we do everything possible to ensure that our industrial site and the residential area can live together sustainably, even if this is not obvious. Both the neighborhood and Umicore have made great efforts over the past decades to reduce the blood lead levels of the children in the area. It is and remains our priority to make our site operate in an even cleaner way," said Johan Ramharter, Director of Umicore in Hoboken. “However, in order to be able to monitor our environmental performance correctly, it is crucial that the measurement method of the new standards in the environmental permit is scientifically substantiated and reliable. Protecting the health of our neighbors and their children is our absolute priority. We therefore regret that our request to define a solid standard and tracking which takes into account a constantly changing group of children has been rejected.”
Our appeal process is based on scientific insights and a thorough sense of reality. Investing in environmental improvements has never been an issue for us and for many years the environmental and child health aspects have been at the forefront of decision making at every investment. Umicore will not miss any opportunity to further improve its environmental performance and remains committed to carrying out intensive measurements, on and off site, to clearly identify emissions and to develop the most appropriate solutions and improvements.
Over the past decades, Umicore has implemented numerous improvements which have helped reduce the plant's impact on its local environment and continues to invest € 25 million per annum to further improve its environmental performance. In 2019, for example, average concentrations of lead in blood of children living in the neighborhood dropped to the lowest ever value. However, in the spring of 2020, the results showed a sudden increase. Further analysis pointed to several factors: the COVID-19 lockdown and the exceptional drought and wind speeds. On top of the investment program that Umicore has been working on for many years, and the results of which can be seen in the sharply declining figures, the company immediately took a series of additional measures, such as using a wind barometer that takes into account the weather conditions to halt certain operations on the site.
In June, the Antwerp provincial government decided to impose new conditions in the site's environmental permit. The new conditions set the average standard for blood lead levels of the participating children from the neighborhood at a maximum of 3.5 µg/dl (micrograms per deciliter) in 2021. From 2023 onwards the average will be 3 µg/dl. From then on, in addition to the average value, a 95th percentile value will also apply. In 2023 the 95th percentile value will be a maximum of 5 µg/dl. This means that a maximum of 5% of the measurements may exceed 5 µg/dl. In 2026, the average will have to be 2 µg/dl, with a maximum of a 95th percentile value of 4 µg/dl.
In its appeal, Umicore questioned the method used to determine the standard. That method is not reliable enough. Not only the children participating in the studies may differ, but also their number. Moreover, the number of children taking part in the tests will decrease as a result of the purchase program of the houses closest to the plant, where the green zone will later be created. Due to these ever-changing parameters, the results can fluctuate widely and do not provide a clear indication of the environmental results and the current impact on the surroundings.
Umicore also noted in the appeal that the average standard of 2 µg/dl that will eventually apply to the area surrounding the Hoboken site is extremely ambitious as it is significantly below the reference value of 3.5 µg/dl guideline set by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) since October 2021. Furthermore, there are no examples of such a low standard being applied, anywhere else neither in an industrial nor in a residential setting. Therefore Umicore proposed to re-evaluate the standards after a period of three years, during which we continue to monitor and improve, after sufficient scientific analysis is available regarding the impact of the improvement measures and the relocation of children living next to the plant.
We are currently studying the minister's decision and will determine further steps accordingly. We would like to emphasize that it is our priority to continue to protect the environment and that we consider a reliable measurement method to be crucial.