Written by Rob Hogenboom
On the fifth of January 2011, the small town of Moerdijk was shaken up by a great fire. On the grounds of Chemie-Pack, a company dealing with chemicals located in the industrial area near Moerdijk, an employee tried to heat up a frozen pump with a gas torch causing the liquid inside the pump to catch fire. Within minutes the flames had spread to the surrounding containers full of flammable and toxic chemicals. As later investigation showed, some of those chemicals were stored in a manner that was in contrast with the law. These chemicals were dispersed by the fire resulting in at least 12 policemen and 10 firemen with health complaints (NOS, 2011), although the Onderzoeksraad voor de Veiligheid (Research Council for Safety) claims that no one was injured. (Onderzoeksraad, 2012) The fire, which was called a disaster by the Minister of Security and Justice on the tenth of January, caused a total of 71 million euro’s worth of damage mainly environmental damage.
The media attention turned my eye on Moerdijk. It was a big thing and got a lot of media coverage. The image of a confused woman not knowing if it was safe for her children to play outside got stuck in my head. I wondered what I would do if such an incident happened near my house. How strange it must be to know that you would live close to apparently such a hazardous place. Many questions came into my mind: How is the remembrance of this extreme disturbance of everyday life? Are there any traces of the disaster still visible? How does it affect daily life? I decided to go and see it for myself, off to the little town of Moerdijk.
It turned out that Moerdijk was not so easy to reach. Not owning a car myself, I was forced to use the public transport. It took two train rides and a local bus service run by volunteers to make it to my destination, a small three hours after I left Amsterdam. This long travel time made this geographically not too distant place feel like I stepped into a whole different world. The view of nothing but farmlands also contributed to this feeling.
I chose to visit on a weekday because the disaster happened on a weekday as well. My time of arrival was around 2 pm, half an hour before the fire started that fifth of January in 2011. All of this with the purpose of coming as close as possible to what the day of the tragic incident must have been like. Surprisingly enough there was not a single soul in sight during my first half an hour in Moerdijk. This gave me the opportunity to check out the surroundings for a while. One thing that really caught my eye was the incredibly large Catholic church, right in the middle of the village. It is of such a size that it can easily hold the whole town for a service. Also worth noting was the large amount of companies active in the fishing industry. Remarkable was the absence of any large-scale industrial site, which was what I expected based on the media reports. As it turned 2.30 pm I made my way to the primary school. This was the location where the worried mother had been interviewed. In front of the school were parents waiting to pick up their children. A peaceful scenery, the total opposite of a chaotic disaster. The absence of any sort of visible threat made Moerdijk look like just another quiet fisherman's village. With this serene image in my head, I made my way over to where the threat was supposed to be coming from, the Moerdijk industrial park.
The walk from the village to the industrial area was right through the groenstrook or green belt. The groenstrook emphasized the rural landscape the village was set in: farmlands with tractors working on them, surrounded by trees. When I got closer to the industrial area of Moerdijk the view changed, the farmlands were replaced by tarmac roads and the trees substitute traffic signs and warehouses. A scene very different than the rest of the area, the emergence of a ‘modern’ world. This groenstrook is the first thing mentioned when looking at the municipal website about the industrial park of Moerdijk. (Moerdijk.nl, 2014) Apparently, the municipality feels obliged to emphasize some sort of safety aspect, which is, of course, comprehensible considering the bad name the region has developed over recent years.
Access to the initial disaster site was impossible since it is closed until 2016 due to sanitation operations. Unfortunately also entrance to the industrial area was also prohibited for unauthorized persons. Not wanting to break the law, the direct surroundings of the initial disaster site was thus inaccessible for me.
It wasn't until I was on my way back home that I had a personal encounter with the disaster. Whereas the first time I used the local bus, the driver had been in a conversation with a fellow traveller, the bus was now empty. Since the driver remembered me I figured this would be the perfect time to ask him, a local resident, somethings about Moerdijk, the industrial area and his experiences of the disaster. He was more than willing to talk to me and started by telling me that he likes driving the bus because it keeps him up to date about what is on the mind of younger generations. Budget cuts by the government left the bus company unwilling to operate this unprofitable line, so now he and fourteen other locals run this bus voluntarily. When I asked him about the industrial park and the fire at Chemie-Pack he told me that at first the people of Moerdijk were told that the business area would be focused mainly on logistics. Not a strange thought as Moerdijk lies between the big naval ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp. The Shell chemical plant would be an exception, however the presence of companies like Chemie-Pack, Basell and Dr Kolb show otherwise.
A big issue now is the plan for expanding the park, the driver told me, which had already brought down a couple of farms and a marina before. His fear was that it won't take long for the whole of Moerdijk to be destroyed in order to make room for the industrial expansion. The recent decisions by the town council show that his fear is legitimate. (NU.nl, 2014) According to the bus driver, his feelings were shared among others in the area, resulting in a trust issue concerning the government. Just as I wanted to ask him if and how he experiences the threat of living close to the Moerdijk Industrial park, the bus reached the train station and it was time for me to get out.
Moerdijk, at first sight, showed no clear traces of the incident at Chemie-Pack. I suppose this is mainly due to the fact that there were no casualties as a result of the incident and thus a lesser need for a public memorial. That the initial disaster site is inaccessible also contributes to this lack of presence. However, this does not mean that there is no memory of the disaster. There are multiple aspects that keep confronting Moerdijk with the fire, albeit in the context of a bigger threat.
For instance the huge difference between the village and the industrial park, which seems like two different worlds. These worlds have their own specific needs and one's needs do not always align with others. This is reflected in the planned expansion of the industrial area, resulting in more nuisance for Moerdijk’s inhabitants. This emerging industrial landscape threatening the quiet Moerdijk can be seen as a constant recurring activation of the memory of the disaster.
Also, the fact that the Chemie-Pack fire was not the only incident to have happened in recent years contributes to a situation in which every incident brings the threat back to mind, Like the recent explosions at Shell Moerdijk which are a perfect example. (Volkskrant, 2014)
My conversation with the bus driver made me realize that there might be an underlying fear, of which the threat of a disaster is a mere part of. A deeper connection than the previously addressed, more obvious signals. Namely the threat of their own existence. Gradually everything is changing in Moerdijk, the bus company is unwilling to operate the local line due to budget cuts by the government, the old marina had to make way for the industrial area which continues to claim more and more land. All signs that it will not take long for Moerdijk to completely be wiped off the map. The incidents at the industrial area are a harbinger of that what really is happening. The disaster at Chemie-Pack can thus be beheld as a precursor of the overarching threat to the local’s own existence. Seen this way, everything that is going on in Moerdijk can be made part of the summation that will ultimately lead to the end of the village. With the government to blame for the expansion of the industrial area and the bus line (at least in the eyes of the bus driver) a negative relation between politics and the local people has arisen. This relation works in two ways: If something goes wrong, the government is to blame; if the government does something, it is probably against the interest of the people. The result is a negative spiral where the motives behind every action are looked at suspiciously. It must be said that in order to prove this theory more research has to be conducted, of which this inference can be a hypothesis.
What had a lasting impact on me after conducting the fieldwork in Moerdijk was the concept of distance. This initiated before I even started this research. Having heard the name many times in the media over the last couple of years, I realized that I had no clue about where Moerdijk actually was. The idea of distance again came to mind after the long trip to the small fisherman’s village. Not only the time it took to get there, but also the contrast between the city I came from and the farmland that surrounds Moerdijk. Distance also between the town and the industrial area, the groenstrook, the by the local government assumed safety belt. And finally the distance between the inhabitants of Moerdijk and the government in general. A small village inseparably associated with chemical disasters. Somehow the story reminds me of a similar place somewhere in Brittany, where Asterix and Obelix hold off the Romans from capturing their village. In its own way, Moerdijk is doing the same, fighting to survive the influences of the big, bad, outside world.
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