Forever chemicals, and suing 3M for PFAS pollution in Europe. A flag on applicable law.

On Friday, together with my learned colleague at both Bar and Faculty Isabelle Larmuseau, I was asked to put my environmental law hat on at the Flemish Parliament. I was heard  on the current scandal hitting Flanders following PFAS (‘forever chemicals’) emissions by 3 M at the port of Antwerp. For background to PFAS see here.

Isabelle’s slidedeck for same is here (updated at 09:28 on 31 August to correct earlier pdf which contained an earlier version of the slides), and mine here. Both are in Dutch, with Isabelle’s focusing on the Flemish environmental law angle (albeit with strong EU law influence, necessarily) and mine on the EU and international law context).

Focus of the debate is on environmental /public health law however for my conflicts followers there is a treat. A civil law suit by Belgian and /or other [the port of Antwerp is very close for instance to the Dutch border. Emissions in air, water and soil (for the latter, particularly if exported) clearly impact Dutch citisens, say] claimants against 3M’s Belgian corporate presence is easily pursued both in Belgium (Article 4 Brussels Ia) and in other Member States (Article 7(2) locus damni). Residual private international law in all these States would fairly straightforwardly allow for the suit to be extended to 3M’s corporate mother, based at St Paul, Minnesota.

The more exciting bit is applicable law. The impact of common US (State) law on forever chemicals suits is well documented. Despite EU courts not willing to apply the punitive damages elements of these suits, an application of the other elements of US tort law may well be very attractive to claimants here. Those US laws are certainly within reach of claimants, using Article 7 Rome II. There is no question the damage ‘arises out of’ environmental damage (unlike the hesitation in Begum v Maran). There is certainly merit in the suggestion that locus delicti commissi is in St Paul, Minessota. Like with its fellow manufacturers and industrial users of PFAS, 3M’s worldwide grip on corporate communication and legal strategy on the issue is tight. More importantly, the decision tree on the manufacture, use and emissions of PFAS is arguably equally located at holding level. Reference here can be made to the relevance of Shell’s holding policy in lex causae determination in the recent climate ruling.

Clearly, via A17 Rome II, Flemish and of course European environmental law would play a role (cue Isabelle’s slidedeck for an excellent starter).

A collective action procedure in say The Netherlands in my view would be an ideal strategy to test these most murky waters.

Geert.

EU Private International Law, 3rd. ed. 2021, Chapter 4, Heading 4.6.3 (4.54 ff).

The Antwerp court of first instance in CMB (Bocimar NV), ‘The Mineral Water’: In dubio pro reo or a perfect excuse for forum shopping?

The Antwerp court of first instance (criminal section) has held last Friday, 25 June (I have copy of the judgment (in Dutch) on file) in the prosecution against CMB (an Antwerp based shipowner; specifically: Bocimar NV) and a number of individuals for the alleged illegal transport of waste, in the shape of the discarded ship the Mineral Water, destined for beaching at Chittagong, Bangladesh (the same location of relevance in Begum v Maran).

The Mineral Water was built in 1999, bought by CMB in 2007. A decision was made ‘end 2015’ (the judgment does not clarify specific date and /or circumstance of that decision) to sell  her, with a view to recycling. That sale was approved on 19 January 2016 by Bocimar Board Decision, to a cash buyer based on the British Virgin Islands, when the ship was anchored at Fangcheng, China. Actual transfer of the ship happened at Malaysia a few weeks later. The ship’s registry was changed from Antwerp to Niue after the transfer and she was beached at Chittagong in February.

The case is a criminal prosecution which of course carries with it a high burden of proof. Seeing as the ship sailed under Belgian flag, the principled application of Belgian and EU law was not as such disputed. Neither do the original owners dispute that at the time of the January 2016 decision, the ship met with the definition of waste ia per CJEU Shell. However defendants argue the EU Waste Shipments Regulation – WSR does not apply for, they argue, the Mineral Water never sailed in European waters and was not physically exported from the EU with a view to recycling (p.5 in fine).

[The court later (p.8) notes this is not quite correct: occasionally EU ports were used for (un)loading and in 2015 there was rare bunkering at Malta].

The court held for the defence. Core to the decision is Article 2, 30 31 and 32: the definitions of ‘import’, ‘export’, ‘transfer’. The prosecutor seeks support in Article 2.22: ”country of dispatch’ means any country from which a shipment of waste is planned to be initiated or is initiated’. The court however held that neither the place of decision nor the flag State is of relevance to the territorial scope of application of the WSR. (Note the contrast on that point with the Ships Recycling Regulation – SRG 1257/2013, not applicable to the facts at issue).

One imagines more on that issue can and should be said upon appeal.

The countries of dispatch, transfer and destination of the ship are all ex-EU. Importantly, at p.8 the court notes there is no indication that the owners would have gamed the system to ensure the ship lay outside EU territorial waters at the time of the decision to discard.

The case shows the importance of the flag State in the SRG (itself not free of difficulties; the IMO Hong Kong Convention should avoid gaming). Of note is also that the place of decision-making (relevant for conflict of laws: locus delicti commissi, eg under A7 Rome II as discussed in Begum v Maran) did not play a  role. The crucial element was the almost complete lack of physical contact between the ship and the EU.

One assumes the prosecution will appeal.

Geert.

Handbook of EU Waste law, 2015, Chapter 3.