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Toxic landslide threatens Danish village as argument over clean up costs escalates

The area affected by a landslide of several million tonnes contaminated soil near the village of Oelst, Randers, Denmark.
The area affected by a landslide of several million tonnes contaminated soil near the village of Oelst, Randers, Denmark. Copyright Bo Amstrup/Ritzau Scanpix via AP
Copyright Bo Amstrup/Ritzau Scanpix via AP
By Euronews Green with AP
Published on Updated
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After nine days, Nordic Waste - the company that operated the site - gave up on getting the landslide under control.

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Authorities in Denmark are working against the clock to stop a slow-moving landslide of contaminated soil from reaching a nearby water source. 

Public officials and the company that operated the site are arguing over who should pay for the massive cleanup.

The 75-meter-tall heap of dirt is at the Nordic Waste reprocessing plant south of the town of Randers in northwestern Denmark. Containing some 3 million cubic meters of soil contaminated with heavy metals and oil products, it is slowly moving towards the village of Ølst which has 400 inhabitants. 

The landslide was initially moving at a pace of up to 40 centimetres per hour toward a stream connected to the Baltic Sea via the Randers Fjord and has since slowed to around 2 metres a day.

A 75-metre tall heap of dirt at the Nordic Waste reprocessing plant site with 3 million cubic metres of contaminated soil.
A 75-metre tall heap of dirt at the Nordic Waste reprocessing plant site with 3 million cubic metres of contaminated soil.Bo Amstrup/Ritzau Scanpix via AP

It started on 10 December and nine days later, Nordic Waste gave up on getting it under control, leaving the task up to the Randers Municipality, which has been rerouting the stream by laying pipes allowing it to pass the site safely. 

Environment Minister Magnus Heunicke said Friday that authorities are working on extending those pipes and that a sheet pile wall is being constructed, along with several basins for the contaminated water.

Water from rain and melting snow are the biggest problems, Heunicke said. In the past week, western Denmark has seen huge amounts of snow and rain.

"It's about separating the polluted water from the clean water," he told a news conference, adding that the work is "enormously difficult."

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said that "of course, it would be totally unfair if the children in Randers or elderly have to pay this bill,”.
Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said that "of course, it would be totally unfair if the children in Randers or elderly have to pay this bill,”.Bo Amstrup/Ritzau Scanpix via AP

Is this a natural event or caused by human activity?

United Shipping and Trading Company (USTC) which is behind Nordic Waste, earlier blamed the landslide on climatic conditions beyond its control.

The area "has been exposed to enormous amounts of rain, as 2023 has been the wettest year ever in Denmark. This has resulted in a natural disaster of a calibre never before seen in Denmark," it said.

On Monday, a report by the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) said the continuous deposit of soil on top of a sloping clay pit at Nordic Waste was the main cause of the landslide.

The landslide "cannot be considered a 'rare, inevitable natural event'," GEUS said.

It is thought to contain some material brought in from Norway. GEUS added that there had been landslides in the region since 2021.

It is moving at a pace of up to 40 centimetres per hour toward a stream connected to the Baltic Sea via the Randers Fjord.
It is moving at a pace of up to 40 centimetres per hour toward a stream connected to the Baltic Sea via the Randers Fjord.Bo Amstrup/Ritzau Scanpix via AP

Who will pay for the cleanup?

It is still unclear who will have to pay for the cleanup. Nordic Waste was declared bankrupt earlier this week after the Danish Environmental Protection Agency ordered it to provide security of more than 200 million kroner (€17.7 million) to prevent an environmental disaster.

Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen visited the site Monday and said it would be unfair if Danish taxpayers had to pay.

Nina Østergaard Borris, Nordic Waste's CEO, said it would take up five years to restore the site, and it could potentially cost billions of kroner. She said the situation "is far more serious than anyone could have imagined, and the task of saving the area is far greater than what Nordic Waste or USTC can handle."

The case has started a debate about whether Nordic Waste has a moral responsibility to pay. The government has lashed out at Denmark's sixth-richest man, Torben Østergaard-Nielsen, who is behind USTC, for not paying.

"We want to do everything in our power to make the polluters pay," Heunicke said.

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