MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Umicore pledges to 'green buffer' after lead spike in Hoboken, Belgium

Published by MAC on 2021-06-15
Source: Umicore.com, Reuters, Politico

Union Minière changed its name to Umicore in 2001.

The Umicore plant in Hoboken, a suburb of Antwerp, gathers electronic waste and spent batteries from all over Europe and takes them apart to extract precious metals such as silver, gold and platinum. While the factory has been there for 130 years and is now Europe’s largest "recycler" of precious metals, the urban zone immediately adjacent to the site remains vulnerable: 41.5% of the children have a blood lead level above 5 micrograms/dl. “We are offering families with children in the vicinity the possibility to sell their houses at attractive prices, so that we can create a green buffer zone,” CEO Marc Grynberg said in a statement.

“If we would have known that there’s such a dangerous company nearby, we would have never bought this house,” said Adam Fadol, a resident whose three children all had heightened lead values in their blood. Since 1998, the average value of lead in the blood of tested children dropped from over 15 micrograms per deciliter to 3 micrograms in 2019, according to sources. But during the most recent measurement in June, the figures spiked. Nearly half of the tested children were above the WHO threshold, 20 had more than 10 micrograms and four exceeded 20 micrograms. The pandemic plays a possible role in the spike, with children spending more time at home instead of being at school.

Umicore, formerly Union Minière, is a multinational materials technology company headquartered in Brussels. The main thread running through much of Umicore's history is the Union Minière du Haut-Katanga (UMHK), a company incorporated in 1906 to exploit the vast natural resources of the "Belgian Congo".
 
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Further reduction in blood lead levels around the Umicore site in Hoboken

Umicore.com https://www.umicore.com/en/newsroom/news/further-reduction-in-blood-lead-levels-around-the-umicore-site-in-hoboken/

4 June 2021

The Provincial Institute for Hygiene (PIH) today published the results of the spring campaign to measure the lead content in children’s blood in the area around Umicore's Hoboken site. The average lead levels of the children in the Moretusburg and Hertogvelden districts have fallen further to 3.42 micrograms per deciliter (compared with 4.12 in autumn 2020).

Not only has the average level fallen, but so has the number of children with a blood lead level above 5 micrograms per deciliter. This figure has dropped to 18.8% (compared with 26.3% in autumn 2020). The number of children with a lead level above 10 micrograms per deciliter has halved from 10 to 5. Not a single child had a lead level above 20 micrograms per deciliter.

The zone immediately adjacent to the site remains the most vulnerable area, as 41.5% of the children here have a blood lead level above 5 micrograms/dl. This underlines the importance of establishing a green zone.

The levels continue to fall across the board and the downward trend of the past few years has been resumed.

We are carrying on unabated with our comprehensive action plan to ensure ongoing improvement. Since last year, we have been adapting our logistics activities in line with the weather conditions. We postpone activities that may release particles on days when wind speeds are higher.

We are spraying and cleaning even more intensively and we use state-of-the-art technology to monitor and adjust our emissions. Investments that further reduce our emissions are given priority over other projects so as to limit our impact on the environment and the neighborhood even more.

Johan Ramharter (Senior Vice President): “I am delighted to see a return of the positive results recorded prior to 2020. At the same time, these results incentivize us to continue our efforts to limit particle dispersion. As a respectful neighbor, we aim to keep the company’s impact on the surrounding districts to a minimum.”


Umicore boss pledges 'green buffer zone' near Antwerp plant

Reuters https://www.reuters.com/article/umicore-environment-idUSL1N2LG1HW

March 18, 2021

The head of Belgian battery maker Umicore said on Wednesday it would create a buffer zone near its Hoboken plant on the outskirts of Antwerp, after blood readings last year showed high levels of lead in children living nearby.

Umicore said it had made significant progress with lead and cadmium emissions, but saw clear room for improvement on arsenic and lead in coarse dust.

“We are offering families with children in the vicinity the possibility to sell their houses at attractive prices, so that we can create a green buffer zone,” CEO Marc Grynberg said in a statement.

In a presentation last week, the firm said that of the 170 houses up for sale in Moretusburg - a residential area close to the site - 58 owners had received purchase proposals and 37 had accepted the offer.

It added that the City of Antwerp was considering relocating social housing tenants living in areas most exposed to dust from the factory to Umicore-owned housing in a less polluted zone of the neighbourhood.

On Wednesday Umicore said it had responded to concerns by cleaning roads at the plant more intensively, fully covering new raw material storage areas and taking into account new weather patterns caused by climate change.

It also said that it was improving its fire prevention measures, after a fire broke out in its lead refinery in March last year.

Umicore, which makes catalytic converters and battery materials for carmakers, says it is investing 25 million euros ($29.94 million) a year in improving its environmental performance. ($1 = 0.8351 euros) (Reporting by Sarah Morland in Gdansk, editing by Philippa Fletcher)


Antwerp’s toxic recycling problem

Finding ways to recycle cleanly is crucial for the EU’s environmental plans.

Eline Schaart

https://www.politico.eu/article/antwerps-toxic-recycling-problem/

October 22, 2020

ANTWERP, Belgium — Recycling can be a dirty business, which is a problem for one of Europe's oldest and largest recycling plants.

The Umicore plant in Hoboken, a suburb of Antwerp, gathers electronic waste and spent batteries from all over Europe and takes them apart to extract precious metals such as silver, gold and platinum. Its industrial chimneys loom high over a local neighborhood of duplex houses.

The factory has been here for 130 years, separated from the houses by a battered gray and brick 3-meter wall — but recently people are reporting a surge of health problems. More than 60 children have shown high levels of lead in their blood. One 5-year-old had five times the 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood limit that's deemed safe by the World Health Organization.

“If we would have known that there’s such a dangerous company nearby, we would have never bought this house,” said Adam Fadol, a resident whose three children all had heightened lead values in their blood.

That's a problem for the neighborhood, for the mining and refining company that is now Europe’s largest recycler of precious metals, as well as an example of the difficulties posed by the EU's efforts to boost recycling.

As part of its Green Deal program to become climate-neutral by 2050, the EU wants a dramatic expansion in renewable energy and electric vehicles. That means a massive increase in battery production — which needs the metals extracted by factories like Umicore's — and a surge in old batteries sent for recycling.

Past problems

It's difficult to pin down exactly where the lead problem in Hoboken comes from because the factory has been there for decades, but it underlines the difficulty of conducting such industrial operations in populated areas. It also raises questions over the EU’s plans to have more such plants in Europe, instead of the current practice of shipping e-waste off to developing countries where the recycling is done with little regard to safety and environmental standards.

Umicore has been aware of the dangers of lead pollution for decades.

Local children are tested every six months for lead — a heavy metal present in many of the reprocessed materials. Since 1998, the average value of lead in the blood of tested children dropped from over 15 micrograms per deciliter to 3 micrograms in 2019. But during the most recent measurement in June, the figures spiked. Nearly half of the tested children were above the WHO threshold, 20 had more than 10 micrograms and four exceeded 20 micrograms.

The pandemic plays a possible role with children spending much more time at home instead of being at a more distant school.

“The school in the neighborhood was closed years ago to make sure the children would be less exposed, but we only thought about that when the lockdown started,” said Luc Gellens, senior vice president at Umicore and director of the Hoboken site.

In response, Umicore is now proposing to buy the houses of nearby families with young children and to eventually create a “green belt” around the factory. Some 30 families have so far said that they are interested in moving, according to local media.

Fadol is eager to move. His three children, aged between 2 and 7, all have heightened lead levels. “Sometimes my youngest daughter plays outside, she comes home with dark dust on her clothes,” Fadol said in his living room.

But Sandra Van Der Linden said her family was not planning to accept Umicore’s offer and leave the house they've lived in for 13 years, even though her grandson has five times the amount of lead deemed safe in his blood. “We enjoy living here and we know all our neighbors,” Van Der Linden said.

Trade-offs

Despite the problems in Hoboken, the company stressed that the alternative is worse.

The environmental cost of dumping waste, as well as mining needed to extract new materials, is much higher than recycling, said Marjolein Scheers, a Umicore spokesperson.

The EU's green energy plans mean that factories such as Umicore's will only become more common. Approximately one-third of all discarded e-waste is not separately collected or properly recycled, resulting in a loss of valuable resources as well as chemical pollution, both within and outside the EU.

That's something Brussels hopes to change by encouraging recycling. In its Circular Economy Action Plan, launched in March, the European Commission said it would explore ways of improving the collection and treatment of e-waste, including an EU-wide scheme to return or sell back old mobile phones, tablets and chargers.

“Before a company will invest, it will need a kind of certainty that its investments will yield a profit — in this case, this can only be achieved if the [European Commission] can guarantee that there will be more material available for recycling,” said Scheers.

It also means that Umicore's neighbors have to make a decision about whether the lower real estate values are worth any potential health risk.

 

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