Public works dept. allowed construction firm to dump waste in Gelderland lake: report

Rijkswaterstaat building in Rotterdam
Rijkswaterstaat building in RotterdamJoeppoulssenDepositPhotosDeposit Photos

The head of public works department Rijkswaterstaat allowed Amsterdam construction company Bontrup to dump thousands of tons of waste in a natural lake in Gelderland, the Volkskrant reports based on research by Zembla. Rijkswaterstaat approved this dumping shortly after former Foreign Affairs Minister Halbe Zijlstra became involved, according to the newspaper.

The waste involved is granulite, which is a byproduct of processing granite and sandstone. It is considered "soil" by the Dutch authorities, but concerns about its effects on the environment were raised in 2018.

Bontrup processes granite for the construction of asphalt roads in the Netherlands, and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management regards the company as "one of the most important suppliers for road builders", according to an internal memo, the newspaper wrote. But supply from Bontrup threatened to stall because the company had no room left to store granulite. 

Dumping the waste product in natural lake Over de Maas was proposed as a solution. The granulite could replace the sand extracted from the lake, was the idea. But experts from the Infrastructure Ministry raised doubts about the dumping and warned that the long-term environmental impact of granulite is unknown. Two licensing officials also separately rejected the landfill application, according to the newspaper.

According to the newspaper, the first official at Rijkswaterstaat Zuid who rejected the application over environmental concerns, received an email from the Rijkswaterstaat head office in Utrecht, reprimanding him. "We no longer have a discussion about whether or not granulite is soil: we consider it soil," the email read. It added that "fast action becomes essential" in the Bontrup application and that "a working method" was agreed with the company. The application was then reassessed by a second official and rejected again in October 2019.

But then Zijlstra stepped in. He put the directors of Bontrup in touch with the head of Rijkswaterstaat, who he knows well, the newspaper wrote. And one day after the landfill application was rejected for the last time, it was approved "on the basis of changed insight". 

The former Minister - who, incidentally, is now CEO of construction company Volker Wessels, a major buyer for Bontrup - confirmed to Zembla that he put the owner of Bontrup in touch with the head of Rijkswaterstaat when the company's application was rejected. "Of course it cannot be the case in this country that you properly comply with all laws and regulations and that you might end up in trouble because of official arbitrariness," he said.

Zijlstra admitted to the television program that he is not an expert and therefore cannot assess the consequences of dumping granulite in a natural lake. But he added: "Look, we didn't know 30 to 40 years ago that asbestos was harmful. And of course you never know things like that." He denies putting pressure on the Rijkswaterstaat. But he said that if Bontrup could not get rid of its waste, Rijkswaterstaat would have had a problem. "Because the moment you have no crushed stones, you also have no asphalt, you also have no maintenance, and then the work stops quickly."

In a response on its website, Rijkswaterstaat said that granulite has been considered soil since 2009, and that classification was reconfirmed by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management according to the definition of the Soil Quality Decree in 2019. 

"Granulite can be used properly and safely under certain conditions. Provided that all requirements from the Soil Quality Decree and the Water Act are met," the department said. "In the case of the Over de Maas project, that is the case." Rijkswaterstaat said that as competent authority, it always looks closely at consequences to the environment and monitors compliance with the rules. 

"The picture that is outlined in the Zembla announcement does not do justice to the substantive considerations underlying the granting of permission by the Rijkswaterstaat for the use of granulite in Over de Maas. That does not alter the fact that, looking back, the process might have been better," Rijkswaterstaat said.