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Jim Ratcliffe’s vast petrochemical plant in Antwerp faces new legal challenge

<span>Sir Jim Ratcliffe, second from right, pictured at the European industry summit in Antwerp on Tuesday, with Alexander De Croo, prime minister of Belgium, second from left, and Ursula von der Leyen, right.</span><span>Photograph: REX/Shutterstock</span>
Sir Jim Ratcliffe, second from right, pictured at the European industry summit in Antwerp on Tuesday, with Alexander De Croo, prime minister of Belgium, second from left, and Ursula von der Leyen, right.Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

The creation of the biggest petrochemical plant in Europe in 30 years faces a new legal challenge by a group of NGOs arguing that the true impact of the development on people, nature and the climate has not been considered.

Client Earth lodged papers on Wednesday evening in court which aim to halt the building of Project One, a vast cracking plant to produce the chemicals to make plastic, which is being built in Antwerp by Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s company Ineos.

The move comes as part of a long-running legal battle by environmental groups to stop Ratcliffe building a plant that would produce ethylene for plastic production on a scale not seen before in Europe. The last few years have seen large-scale plans for expansion by the global petrochemical sector, despite concerns about plastic pollution and the need to curb rising carbon emissions.

The building of Ratcliffe’s €3bn plant was halted last summer after a landmark court victory by the NGOs. They successfully argued that Ineos failed to tell the authorities the full extent of the project’s predicted impact on the surrounding environment. The court of the council of permit disputes ruled the crucial omissions mean the Flemish authorities should not have granted the project a permit of approval.

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The Flemish authorities issued a new environmental permit to operate last month.

At a summit on European industry attended by business leaders and politicians including Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission chief, this week, Ratcliffe praised politicians who had reissued a permit to Ineos last month to allow his petrochemical plant to go ahead.

The Ineos boss told newspaper De Tijd that he was a “big fan” of Antwerp’s mayor, Bart De Wever, and the prime minister of Belgium, Alexander De Croo, for getting his project back on track.

“If we had not seen so much dedication in the Flemish and federal government, we would have stopped the project here immediately. The guarantee that Flanders provided on our bridging loan was also crucial,” he said.

He was speaking before Client Earth filed their latest legal challenge in the Flemish courts. In the discussions with the politicians, Ratcliffe gave an insight into the impact of the repeated legal battles to get the petrochemical plant back on track. He said he had considered stopping production of the plant in Antwerp and moving it elsewhere.

“Europe has suffocating legislation and bureaucracy that make it very, very difficult to build anything,” he said. “This is how nonsense happens with a permit in which €4bn has already been invested and which employs 10,000 people worldwide. You don’t think that’s possible, do you?”

But Tatiana Luján of Client Earth, who has been at the forefront of the legal battle to stop the Ineos plant, said the fight to stop Project One would continue. As she filed papers on Wednesday challenging Ineos over the scale of the scope 3 emissions, she said: “Plastics are an environmental issue, a people issue and a climate issue. Allowing what would be the largest plastics facility in Europe to go ahead would not just be a local disaster, but a global affront.

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“Project One would help fuel more plastic production when we’re already at saturation point. Plastics are made from fossil fuels, so their production is catastrophic for the climate at every stage. The far-reaching consequences of this project are very real and cannot go unaccounted for.”

She said it was necessary to go back to court because the changes made to the project’s new permit by the Flemish authorities were just window dressing.

“The fact remains that Project One is both hugely destructive and completely unnecessary,” she said. “The authorities have once again failed to acknowledge the blatant, toxic repercussions of the project, so we have no choice but to go back to court.”

Ratcliffe was one of 70 industry chief executives who met von der Leyen and De Croo on Tuesday close to the site of Ineos’s ethane cracker site.

The summit, organised by European and Belgian chemical federations Cefic and Essenscia, was held at the HQ of leading chemical company BASF in Antwerp. The meeting was condemned by environmental groups.

Tatiana Santos, head of chemicals policy at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), said: “This event heightens an obvious concern: the prioritisation of polluters’ profits over public health and the environment.

“Moreover, in an astonishing display of disregard for the welfare of citizens, this event is taking place in one of the most polluted regions in the world, in the house of BASF, an international chemical giant and a major contributor to global pollution.”

She said that last October, pollution victims from Belgium, Italy and France requested an audience with von der Leyen to address the devastating health consequences of hazardous PFAS chemicals but were ignored. As EU leaders set their agenda ahead of elections, the private one-to-one discussion between industry and politicians starkly contrasts with the hurdles faced by the citizens and NGOs alike in having their voices heard, she said.

An Ineos spokesperson said: “Project One will produce the raw material essential for medical products, insulation, transport and packaging. It will have the lowest carbon footprint compared to any plant of its kind Europe. And by applying state-of-the-art technology, it has a clear road map to carbon neutrality within 10 years of start-up. Europe needs to be permitted to renew its manufacturing technology and we will strongly defend this project in the court.”