The European alarm-signal for chemical-waste pollution has gone off in Lekkerkerk, a small village under the colorful smoke of Rotterdam, Europe's busiest harbor and heart of the Dutch chemical industry.
Local government officials investigating complaints by Lekkerkerk residents discovered that water only a few inches under a new housing development was laced with at least three dangerous chemical combinations.
Several years ago, the ground on which the neighborhood was built had been filled with hundreds of metal drums containing various chemicals. During the intervening years, the drums rusted and the contents leaked into the groundwater. All 270 families had to leave their new homes and move to mobile and prefabricated homes just outside Lekkerkerk.
The central government moved quickly, however, Taking the burden from the local authorities and promising that none of the 270 families would have to fear any financial damage. The Lekkerkerk clean-up has started and will take at least a year. Hundreds of tons of toxic mud have to be replaced, the houses and the school may be saved. The estimated costs so far: $80 million.
Since Lekkerkerk, local authorities are searching for illegal dumping sites and trying to find out what exactly is dumped on the legal ones. Dutch officials don't know how much there is in the ground, let alone what is in the containers stored around the country -- particularly in the already very polluted and vulnerable western part of the Netherlands.
Lekkerkerk is the result of what was a general practice during the 60s and 70 s. Industries that could not get rid of their chemical waste went to small companies specializing in waste disposal. These companies would transport the toxic chemicals to specific dumping sites. But there were cheaper solutions. sometimes the deal between the manufacturer and transporter was: "I don't tell you exactly what I'm delivering, so you don't have to tell me exactly where you put it."
In the last year, however, the rules for storing chemical waste have become more stringent. Now chemical plants have to account for every pound of waste that leaves their gates. But it does not solve the problem that was created earlier by the indiscriminate dumping of chemical waste.