French residents oppose housing project due to heavily polluted land plots

The owners of the site have decided to deal with this pollution in 2013: "it's not for our health but for economic profit," Romainville Sud President Sébastien Tirloir told EURACTIV France in an interview. "We, the local residents, are seen as the problem. We are a hindrance to the freedom of enterprise on this land," he added. [© Louise Rozès Moscovenko]

The French senate is set to debate an inquiry committee report on soil pollution on Wednesday (13 January), while residents of the Ormes district in the Paris Commune of Romainville opposed a housing project on a very polluted plot of land. EURACTIV France reports.

Real estate developer Alios has already begun the construction of 99 new flats, which are to be built within two years.

Though over half of the flats have been sold in advance – enough for construction to start – a notice board on the construction site reads: “6,000 tonnes of polluted soil discharged”, “1,200 m3 of treated water”, or “monitoring of outdoor air quality”.

This was discovered by a prospective buyer who was unsure about his purchase and visited the site, to discover the location’s poisoned past.

The industrial site – exploited from 1990 to 2003 – was occupied by Wipelec, a French company specialising in chemical cutting and surface treatment of metals for defence equipment. Among its customers were some of France’s largest defence and aeronautics companies, such as Safran and Thales.

In 2012, the company moved to Meaux, in Seine-et-Marne, near a children’s daycare centre.

Its manager, Guy Pelamourgue, was taken into police custody and charged in June 2017. Joëlle Roborg, Wipelec’s former head of quality, safety, and environment at the Meaux site, alerted the Regional and Interdepartmental Department of the Environment and Energy (DRIEE) about pollution.

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A long battle

Since 2014, an association of local residents has been fighting to ensure that the high levels of pollution emanating from the Wipelec site, which has affected this entire neighbourhood, are recognised and dealt with.

Not only was there trichloroethylene (TCE), cyanides and benzene, but contamination of groundwater with chromium VI was also detected, according to a report published on 23 June 2020 by the technical committee of the State Agency for Ecological Transition (Ademe).

The EU threshold value, i.e. the limit value above which the substance can have a consequence, is 50µg/L.

According to the UN’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, chromium, trichloroethylene (trichlo) and benzene are “proven carcinogens”. And under the European Reach Regulation, Chromium VI is banned, unless an exemption is granted.

Officially, the site’s decontamination was completed in July 2018, according to Gingko, a company specialised in “sustainable urban regeneration in Europe”, which bought the site, and France’s ecological transition ministry.

However, given the continuing lack of transparency and the refusal of public authorities to measure current pollution levels, Romainville Sud has not given up.

“We, the local residents, are seen as the problem. We are a hindrance to the freedom of enterprise on this land,” Romainville President Sébastien Tirloir told EURACTIV France.

In reality, however, the site’s clean-up – which is still ongoing – would expose inhabitants to very worrying levels of pollution, especially if the situation is not carried out delicately. However, Alios and the company in charge of cleaning the premises want to move on quickly.

In a decree published on 29 December 2020, limits on trichol rates were modified, following an arm-wrestling between the mayor and the prefect of Seine-Saint-Denis.

“In September, we had a first meeting with the sub-prefect, the DRIEE, and the ARS [ed. Regional Health Agency] which led us to ask for additional elements to understand where we were going,” said Romainville Mayor François Dechy.

“There were several backs and forths on the draft decree, then the prefect sent it to me on 24 December, giving me eight days to sign it. If I didn’t do it I was definitely out of the game because I would have been declared in default and my police powers would have been substituted,” Dechy added.

Still, the mayor managed to obtain amendments, such as the principle of self-control by the de-polluter-promoter, and it was made clear that the municipal police could also check pollution levels at any time.

A growing number of complainants

The signing of the decree also gives the mayor the opportunity to answer questions from residents about their exposure to these chemicals. An independent firm, SolPol, an expert in polluted sites and soils, has been commissioned to provide technical support to the municipality on this complex issue.

Depending on the results of this relatively costly operation, the first conclusions should be known in a fortnight, following which the decree of 29 December could then be amended.

“In the coming days, we’ll see whether the town hall chooses to file a complaint or bring a civil action by joining the complaint currently under investigation,” said the mayor.

Although only two associations and 30 individuals had initially filed a complaint, by February 2018, seven complainants and one new association had filed a civil claim. Then in November 2020, 10 more people filed complaints, six of whom joined the Romainville Sud Association as plaintiffs.

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Standards modified at the highest level of government

The new rates of exposure to trichlo recorded in the December decree are 1,600 times higher than the hitherto accepted standard.

In 2018 and 2020, former mayor Corinne Valls issued two building permits despite the fact that 300 to 500 kg of TCE remained to be extracted and it was planned to maintain 10% of the total on-site clean-up, i.e. 600 kg of TCE – a gigantic amount given the health and environmental risks.

Regarding pollution around the site, nothing was planned, despite the highly volatile nature of the substance. And despite the repeated commitments made by the minister at the time, François de Rugy, no campaign to take samples from the victims of pollution to see the clean-up’s impacts was launched.

According to a confidential work report seen by EURACTIV France, the levels of pollution in the outdoor air around the site exceeded the WHO’s recommended guidelines. During clean-up operations, the air in the neighbourhood was in fact unbreathable, with up to 511µg/m3 of TCE compared to 23µg/m3 recorded indoors. Yet, despite such proven dangers, local residents were never warned…

And the story doesn’t stop there. The new exposure rates provided for in the decree have been modified at the highest level.

Following a joint referral from the health and environmental ministries to the High Council on Public Health dated 4 June 2020 to relax standards concerning TCE, the high council – after years of recommending reducing exposure to trichlo – updated their “benchmark values previously established to help manage indoor air quality” in July 2020.

This allowed the Seine-Saint-Denis prefecture to interpret the new rate in its 29 December order, without setting a time limit, raising the WHO TCE alert threshold previously applied on the site (23µg/m3) to 3200 µg/m3 for outdoor air.

In a letter dated 30 December 2020, the vice-president of France Nature Environnement Île-de-France, Francis Redon, alerted senators about this change in standards and the situation in Romainville.

With a report drafted by the Senate commission of enquiry on health and ecological problems linked to soil pollution concluding that the problem is national and that off-site pollution is poorly measured and insufficiently taken into account in French legislation, the Senate will debate the report’s conclusions on Wednesday (13 January).

A cluster of cancers

According to a census carried out by a local resident between June 2016 and February 2019, 30 people have been diagnosed with cancer since 1990, of which 26 have died. In addition, adolescents living around the site had asthma problems.

Three families were also affected by medical terminations of pregnancy and several children were born with health problems or contracted respiratory diseases since moving to the neighbourhood.

However, an investigation into potential “clusters of illnesses” linked to trichlo exposure on the former Wipelec site in Romainville carried out in 2018 did not produce results. As it could not “obtain the agreement of people concerned”, the illnesses reported by Romainville Sud could not “be validated on the basis of medical records, particularly when reports concerned deceased people.”

In a letter addressed to the Ecological Transition Minister Barbara Pompili on 24 November 2020, the Romainville Sud association once again warned of a situation that is “increasingly opaque, where commitments are not being kept and where the future of this site and its surroundings is of growing concern to the population of Romainville”, which to date remains unanswered.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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