There are growing concerns over public health and environmental pollution surrounding the Tata Steel factory on the West Coast of the Netherlands. The effects of steel production in the area have been felt for decades, but the Dutch government has so far not taken measures to penalize or close down the factory responsible for the damages. In June 2023, activist groups organized a mass action against Tata Steel, and there are multiple lawsuits against the company.
Tata Steel IJmuiden, formerly known as the Koninklijke Nederlandse Hoogovens en Staalfabrieken (KNHS), is the biggest steel factory in Europe . The steel plant is located in IJmuiden in the IJmond region of Noord-Holland, where iron ore is melted into steel in a multiple-step process that involves 13 factories. Steel production in the IJmond region started in 1924 with the intention of loosening dependence on foreign steel imports. In 1999, KNHS merged with British Steel under the name Corus. In 2007, the company was taken over by the Indian company Tata Steel . Much of the produced steel is sold to the construction, vehicle, packaging, and engineering industries.
Tata Steel is by far the biggest emitter of Co2 in the Netherlands, accounting for 8% of the country’s Co2 emissions . Besides Co2, Tata Steel is the country’s top emitter of nitrogen, lead, and mercury . In 2018, Tata Steel was responsible for 88% of local particulate matter emissions in the IJmond region .
Although the Dutch government has been aware of the large emissions for which Tata Steel is responsible, in 2016 the company received an environmental permit that allows for even more emissions than it already makes . Hence, the company was not given any incentive to invest in emission-saving technologies. Besides, the Dutch government has been lenient toward the company by charging negligible fines for violations, allowing the company to cheaply use and discharge water, as well as charging extremely low taxes . The Netherlands is dealing with a severe nitrogen crisis, and particularly since the government has decided on radical nitrogen reduction measures that affect farmers across the country, the relative tolerance toward Tata Steel is remarkable.
Tata Steel uses a total of 34 billion liters of water per year, for which it paid only 100 euros in water taxes in 2021 . In 2017, the company released 180 billion liters of wastewater containing arsenic, chromium, mercury, zinc, lead, nickel, and cyanide into surface waters . Graphite rains and black snow in the IJmond region have heightened concerns amongst locals. RIVM's samples in the village of Wijk aan Zee showed that the factory produced ‘graphite rain’ – graphite dust ejected into the atmosphere, which subsequently falls in rain. There are also complaints about noise pollution and bad odor.
In a 2008 video reportage Het gif van Corus (The poison of Corus), concerns over the impacts of the factory on public health and the environment were first brought to light . Based on the concerns raised in this episode, in 2009 the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) started monitoring public health in the region.
Various studies have demonstrated the severe health asymmetries between the IJmond region and the rest of the Netherlands. At least 150,000 people live in the toxic fumes emitted by Tata Steel, which particularly affect IJmuiden, Velsen-Noord, Wijk aan Zee, and Beverwijk . Residents of IJmuiden allegedly face a 25 to 50% larger likelihood of developing lung cancer, which can be traced back to the carcinogenic dust emitted by Tata Steel . A 2020 study found that general cancer rates in Beverwijk exceed the national average by 5%, with lung cancer rates exceeding the national levels by 15% . Local residents also deal with heightened occurrences of nausea, headaches, eye irritation, and shortness of breath, as well as high blood pressure and chronic heart disease, COPD, and diabetes .
It has been found that children growing up near the factory have a higher risk of brain damage . Lead deposits have allegedly been observed on windowsills, in playgrounds, and on the sand around the factory, and children in nearby neighborhoods often return home with black hands after playing outside . Lead is particularly harmful to children because it can lead to brain damage growing up. At some locations around the factory, there have been lead measurements of 30 times the amounts measured throughout the rest of the country [1; 3].
In 2021, approximately 1100 locals together with 8 foundations pressed charges against Tata Steel over willfully damaging public health . Over the last few years, Tata Steel has been sued multiple times. In June 2023, while investigations on the 2021 case were still in process, Mobilisation for the Environment (MOB) started another case against Tata Steel on behalf of local residents, demanding serious emission reduction measures. Concerned parents in Beverwijk have demanded Tata Steel to pay for regular cleanups of playgrounds .
Tata Steel has been investigating possibilities for reducing its Co2 emissions using Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies in the North Sea Canal. In 2021, however, it turned to the exploration of hydrogen-based steel production instead. Although the company has expressed its willingness to work on making its facilities more sustainable, they are only willing to close its most polluting facilities if the government agrees to provide financial support with a billion-euro investment . Besides requiring a large amount of tax money, adapting the company’s infrastructure to become less polluting would take years .
Local neighbours have complained , also internationally. In 2023, Greenpeace started a campaign against Tata Steel under the name ‘People vs Polluters’. They organized Toxic Tata Tours in the dune region near the factory grounds, during which locals share information on the impact of Tata Steel in the region. On June 24, 2023, Greenpeace organized a mass action during which activists entered the factory grounds to demand the closure of the most polluting parts of the steel plant. In solidarity with the Greenpeace action, activists of Extinction Rebellion simultaneously held a blockade of the train tracks just outside the factory grounds . Seven activists chained themselves to the track using lock-ons and thereby blocked the company’s steel transport for the day. Extinction Rebellion organized another solidarity action on the beach that day. At this event, punk rock band Hang Youth performed its song Tata Steel, which touches on the link between the large number of cancer cases in the region and the steel factory that refuses to take accountability.
While local residents and other activists are demanding Tata Steel to shut down its most polluting activities, Tata Steel employees suffer job insecurity as the future of the company is deeply uncertain. With around 9000 employees, Tata Steel is the biggest employer of the IJmond region . In total, approximately 30,000 jobs are indirectly dependent on Tata Steel . In December 2019, the company already announced a mass firing of 1600 employees from its IJmuiden facility. After a massive protest by employees, the company later declared the employees no longer had to be laid off. With local and environmentalist groups putting increasing pressure on the company to take action, some of Tata Steel’s employees have expressed the need to join forces with activists in the resistance .
On August 24th, 2023, Frissewind announced that more than 1400 local residents and (former) employees are filing a mass claim against Tata Steel, demanding financial compensation for the material and immaterial damages created by the company . The mass claim rests on violations of multiple laws by Tata Steel and first invites the company to speak about a possible agreement before bringing the case to court.