The 3M site in Zwijndrecht, which was hardly checked in the past.  “More inspectors are sometimes a necessity, but not always a solution,” says Environment Minister Zuhal Demir.

Even after the cries for help about staff shortages in the PFOS Commission of Inquiry

The 3M site in Zwijndrecht, which was hardly checked in the past. “More inspectors are sometimes a necessity, but not always a solution,” says Environment Minister Zuhal Demir. ©  ISOPIX

Flemish Minister for the Environment Zuhal Demir is continuing with the personnel savings in her policy area. In the PFOS Commission of Inquiry, top environmental officials testified that the lack of controls at companies like 3M is partly due to a lack of auditors. But Demir is waiting for an audit to possibly stop the savings. For example, OVAM and its associates will have to make do with another 1.8 million euros in 2022.

Hannes Cattebeke

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Flemish Minister for the Environment Zuhal Demir (N-VA) will also cut back on her own administration next year. The Waste Management Company OVAM, the Flemish Environment Agency (VMM) and the Environment Department, among others, will have to make do with five percent less staff. Administrative costs must also be reduced by 1 percent. This was planned in the 2019 coalition agreement and will be retained in the policy memorandum that Demir will submit to parliament this week.

According to Green MP Mieke Schauvliege, Demir is ignoring the signals that her administration has given in recent months. In the PFOS investigation committee that was started at the request of Demir after the environmental scandal at 3M in Zwijndrecht, the top officials testified one by one that there were too few checks. They know that in large part due to a shortage of personnel. Due to the austerity measures implemented by the previous Flemish governments, 4,146 full-time equivalents are still working in the relevant departments. In 2010, there were still 5,027.

ALSO READ. How years of workforce savings gave 3M free rein

In the investigation committee, Sigrid Raedschelders, head of the environmental inspectorate, stated that one in five of the most polluting companies in Flanders, the class 1 which also includes 3M, has never been checked. Confronted with the austerity path that the Flemish government wants to continue to follow, Peter Cabus, CEO of the Environment department and of N-VA signature, spoke about the “austerity round too much”. “These testimonials showed that the consequences of the staff reduction are very serious,” says Schauvliege. “De facto, we build our environmental policy on the goodwill of the industry.”

Groen asks Demir to change tack and give the administration sufficient resources. The minister does not rule out reducing the savings over time, “if it turns out that enforcement on the ground becomes impossible”. She already ordered an audit for that. But at the moment Demir sees no reasons for that. The poor cooperation between the various services also plays a role, she says. “More inspectors are sometimes a necessity, but not always the ultimate solution. The finger must be placed on all the right wounds.”

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