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Netherlands begins toxic waste mop-up

The government says it will be the largest operation of its kinds in the history of the country. The environmental movement says industry will be asked to pay too little. The people say it's about time.

At issue is the massive mop-up starting this year of the country's 3,000 chemical waste dumps, including 300 that pose serious a serious threat to public health.

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"It's a problem that has been swept under the rug too long," says Jan Henselmans, of the influential environmental organization, Stichting Natuur en Milieu. "And now we have to pay."

The cost will be huge: at least 1 billion guilders ($500 million), according to Dr. Leendert Ginjaar, the environment minister. He sent a letter to the country's 11 provinces requesting full details on the dumping sites last May after after 900 people were evacuated from their homes in Lekkerkerk (10 miles east of Rotterdam) following the discovery of poisonous chemicals dumped nearby. The Lekkerkerk cleanup alone has cost about $70 million.

"All the reports from the provinces haven't been turned in yet, so it is still too early to say exactly what will be done to clean up the sites, or how," Ministry of Health and Environmental Protection said.

But Dr. Ginjaar did tell an Amsterdam newspaper recently that beginning this year the government, the municipalities, and the chemical industry each will be asked to kick in 100,000 guilders ($50,000) per year for the next three as an initial gesture, or a total of 900,000 guilders, toward cleaning up the 300 most dangerous sites.

"The notion of splitting the cost equally three ways is unfortunate," says environmentalist Henselmans. "Industry created the mess. They should pay the bill, not the taxpayer."

Dutch environmentalists are expected in the next few months to press for something like the $1.6 billion "superfund," recently set up by the US Congress, which is to help pay for cleaning up hazardous waste disposal sites.

The Dutch dumps contain the whole range of toxic chemicals, according to the Ministry of Health and Environmental Protection, and the mop-up in some cases will involve digging up the soil to a depth of 15 feet.

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Officials at The Hague expect that a master pla n for dealing with the waste should be ready by April.

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