Our ‘Dirty Neighbor’: A Small Town at War with the Netherlands’ Largest Steel Factory

The residents of Wijk aan Zee face the impossible choice of fighting for their town’s future or leaving.

WHEN JAAP VENNIKER first purchased his home in the sleepy beach village of Wijk aan Zee in northern Holland, he planned to use the WWII-era bunker on his property as a guesthouse. His vision was to host loved ones craving the same sea breeze that drew him here. But now the bunker is once again serving as a line of defense. Affixed to its roof is a small surveillance camera that Venniker installed this past spring to monitor the emissions from the country’s largest steel factory next door, run by Tata Steel.

“You don’t see a sign that it’s unhealthy to live here,” Venniker said. “You have the dunes, you have the sea, it looks healthy, but it’s like living next to a highway.”

A live feed of the Tata Steel plant in Wijk aan Zee. Visible are, among other things, the oxygen steel factory, the Harsco slag processing plant, the infamous coke factory 2 and both blast furnaces. Courtesy of Frisse Wind Nu.

The coal-powered steel plant produces over 7 million tons of rolled steel, which various industrial manufacturers use to make batteries, construction materials and vehicles, among other products. It also emits almost 12 megatons of carbon dioxide a year, making it the largest polluter in the country.

The factory itself was built in 1918 by Dutch steel producer Koninklijke Hoogovens. After a series of mergers, India-based Tata Steel took hold of the facility in 2009, inheriting the property’s legacy of employing thousands, boosting the region’s economy, and polluting the local environment.

For decades, regardless of who was running the plant, tiny particles of dust produced by the steelmaking process would be swept up in coastal winds and build up on the windowsills, clotheslines, and playgrounds of Wijk aan Zee.

The coastal village Wijk aan Zee with the Tata Steel factory’s smokestacks in the background. Photo by screenpunk.

The beach at Wijk aan Zee. The factory isn’t always visible from the beach. Tata Steel’s information desk is located just 350 meters from the beach. Photo by Stephan Mosel.​

Jaap Venniker at home with two of his children. For Venniker, a father of five, knowing what his children breathe in every day puts a heavy weight on his shoulders. ​Photo by Olivia Wynkoop.

An investigation from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) found that despite their size, these small specks were exposing residents to significantly higher levels of lead, heavy metals, and carcinogens than the rest of the country. The report specifically raised concern about local children regularly breathing in matter linked to higher risks of respiratory diseases and lung cancer.

As the village’s demographic shifts away from its steelworker history, residents are no longer willing to accept the health concerns as a fair tradeoff for the benefits the steel factory was once hailed for — namely, jobs.

For Venniker, a father of five, knowing what his children breathe in every day puts a heavy weight on his shoulders. Every decision he makes is weighted differently. Even something as simple as leaving a rented bouncy castle outside overnight means worrying that the children will be jumping in toxic particulate matter the next day.

“As an outsider, it is hard to imagine having to worry about this all the time,” said Venniker, who is one of the three founders of the grassroots organization Frisse Wind.Nu, a resident-led foundation formed after graphite rains hit the village in 2018.

In March of that year, dust from the factory’s blast furnaces storage area scattered beyond the two meters the factory’s environmental permit specifies, and instead rained down on the village, exposing people to high levels of manganese and vanadium.

In 2021, Frisse Wind.Nu filed a 1,200-person complaint alongside lawyer Bénédict Fique to Dutch public prosecutors, which successfully prompted a criminal investigation into the factory’s alleged disregard for public health and continuous violation of emission standards.

Venniker didn’t know that the community had been plagued by graphite rain, loud noises and the stench of heavy metals for years when he first purchased his home. His footage now serves as a warning call to outsiders who only know Wijk aan Zee as a weekend destination. “If the government does not monitor, we will do it ourselves,” Frisse Wind.Nu says underneath the live-streamed footage on their webpage.

The factory, originally built in 1918 by Dutch steel producer Koninklijke Hoogoven, emits almost 12 megatons of carbon dioxide a year, making it the largest polluter in the country. Photo by Debot/Dutch Wikipedia.

For decades, regardless of who was running the plant, tiny particles of dust produced by the steelmaking process would be swept up in coastal winds and build up the beach, on the windowsills of homes, clotheslines, and local playgrounds. ​Photo by Olivia Wynkoop.

But despite their efforts, activists are now reckoning with the anxiety of fighting a battle they feel they cannot win.

SANNE WALVISCH, ANOTHER MEMBER of Frisse Wind.Nu, stands on top of the sand dunes she frequently walks along. Below, on the beach, there are a handful of sunbathing and frite-munching beach dwellers. From the beach, these sunbathers cannot see the factory. But Walvisch, standing on the dunes above, has a clear view of the Tata Steel plant that she refers to as her “ dirty neighbor.”

“Oh, you see the black clouds coming over there? Yeah, that’s not good,” Walvisch said. “When I’m at home, I’m going to see if it was on camera and then I’m going to send it out.”

The organization’s latest strategy is to compile evidence via surveillance cameras. Not only is the footage streamed 24/7 on YouTube for the public, it’s also reviewed by volunteers every day to compile information about flaring and yellow and black smoke plumes, none of which are in compliance with the plant’s emissions agreement. Sometimes the team notes upwards of five emission violations a day.

In the first six weeks after the camera was installed to Venniker’s bunker roof, the foundation said it documented at least 115 instances in which the Tata Steel plant violated its emission allowances. The group says most incidents stem from the plant’s 50-year-old coke factory, where coal is turned into a porous, nearly all-carbon substance called coke in order to melt iron ore.

Exposure to these coke oven emissions, which contain a mix of carcinogens like cadmium and arsenic, is known to increase people’s chances of lung cancer. The number of residents with cancer is 50 percent higher in the area surrounding Tata Steel compared to the rest of the country, according to the Netherlands’ Integral Cancer Institute.

Walvisch diligently reports every visible emissions violation she catches to the federal environment agency. She said she’s working 24/7 to hold Tata Steel accountable, but the work is also wearing her down. “Some people won’t do those complaints because it’s like messy, time-spending stuff,” she said.

Walvisch first moved to Wijk aan Zee from Haarlem, a larger city about ten miles inland, eight years ago. Her family wanted to move into a bigger home and be closer to the beach, as her husband is an avid kite surfer. But hearing her young daughter innocently calling the shiny particles “unicorn dust” made her realize how naive she had been about the harm she may be subjecting her family to. “I knew there was a steel company,” she said, “but I thought, hey, we are living in the Netherlands, everything has been regulated.”

ROUGHLY 350 METERS FROM the beach sits Tata Steel’s information desk, called “Tata Steel in de Buurt.” It’s a small office sandwiched between an ice cream shop and a holiday apartment complex, on the main road visitors trek down to access the shoreline.

Amid growing public outcry, the information desk opened in November 2019 as a one-stop shop for people to complain and inquire about the factory. The center provides information about Tata Steel’s $363 million action plan, called Roadmap Plus plan, which promises to significantly reduce dust dispersion, noise, and smell through adjustments and renovations within the next few years.

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