Dutch debate who should foot the bill for toxic-waste cleanup

Several decades ago, when environmental laws were few in the Netherlands, Dutch chemical companies dumped their waste wherever they pleased. Now those sites - nearly 4,000 of them - have been identified through a government survey. And a national debate over who should pay for cleaning them up has begun.

Environmentalists say industry should pay. Industry says it shouldn't. And the government is caught in the middle.

To date, government has sided with industry, saying the roughly 165 million guilders (about $62 million) needed to clear up the 350 dump sites known to pose an immediate danger to public health should be paid by the taxpayer. The cleanup operation is to start later this year.

Dutch environmentalists, however, cite the example of the United States. Under the US ''Superfund'' project, industry was to foot a sizable proportion of the cost of cleaning up Love Canal and other toxic-waste sites around the country.

''We believe industry should pay at least half of the bill,'' says Jan Henselmans, a toxic-waste expert with the country's leading environmental organization, Stichting Natuur En Milieu. He says the total cost of cleaning up the dumps could reach 2 billion guilders (about $750 million) - and that it is unfair to ask the taxpayer to pay for something for which industry bears the main responsibility.

''Industry should not have to - and will not - pay,'' counters a spokesman for the Dutch Chemical Industry Federation, arguing that when industry dumped its wastes 20 to 30 years ago, ''neither government nor industry knew the danger involved.'' The spokesman said that Dutch industry would contribute ''know-how and expertise'' to the operation - but no cash.

Caught in the middle is the country's newminister for housing, physical planning, and environment, Peter Winsemius, who said in an interview he hopes to get private industry ''more heavily involved'' in the project.

Meanwhile, Dr. Winsemius points out that the survey identifying the old chemical waste sites - many of them beneath new towns or subdivisions and threatening their drinking supplies - was conducted during the previous government's tenure. He is not even sure all the sites have been uncovered.

''We could be surprised,'' he said.

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