Is Grindsted the Danish Love Canal?
On June 20th, 2019 the Danish weekly newspaper “Weekendavisen” (link to Danish language website of the weekly) published a report by freelance writer Jakob Jensen called “Alas, how changed!” (link to Danish original behind paywall). When reading Jakob Jensen’s report about this small Danish town in the middle of Jutland, I started thinking about the Love Canal dumpsite at Niagara Falls, USA. Read more about the pollution at Love Canal here. I could not stop speculating whether Grindsted was our Love Canal?
Grindsted is a city of about 10,000 inhabitants about 60 km from the west coast of Jutland. One of the larger employers of this town is a chemical factory, which years - with the approval of the government - dumped chemical waste containing chlorinated solvents, heavy metals, cyanide, mercury on at least four different sites in the city and also at Kærgård Klitplantage. In the city the material seeped into the creak, and at Kærgård it seeped into the North Sea.
Read some excerpts of Jakob Jensen's report from Grindsted here, and judge for yourself if my headline is correct or not. Send any comments to firstname.lastname@example.org . Maybe I should also just forget about the past an move on?
Ketty Hjøllund was one citizen of Grindsted interviewed by Jakob Jensen for the report. She according to the report came to Grindsted 40 years ago, because her husband, Thorkild, got a well paying job with Grindsted Products (the official English name of the Danish “Grindstedværket”, now Dupont Nutrition Biosciences ApS), which allowed them to invest in the house Ketty now sits alone.
Her husband died four years ago from ALS, like a few others in this town of about 10.000 people. At the time Ketty and Thorkild had a good life with cottage, holiday apartment, children and grandchildren. Ketty’s house is on the Eng Lake - a man-made lake created in 1971-72 in a meadow area in the western end of town in an attempt to remove some of the pollution - mainly heavy metals such as mercury - from the waste stream from Grindsted Products. The discharge was with permission of the authorities. At that time the state.
The old moor town
Jakob Jensen goes on to tell us, that the story about Grindsted is the old story of man and nature, and that not that long ago - before about 1850’s - there was nothing here. Jensen calls it “mankind's courageous and venerable struggle against nature and its tyranny”, and adds “It did not go quite as one had hoped, that fight against nature. And that one can also learn a lot about in Grindsted.”
Not long ago the few people, who lived here worked the earth, as they had always done. Their livelihood depended on grazing cattle, digging peat, growing potatoes and rye, or whatever would grow in the poor sandy soil. Only a single road towards Hejnsvig southeast of the area was there, and during the occasional sandstorm the road was difficult to follow. Jakob Jensen also tells us “even less often a county man from Koldinghus; here there was not much to tax anyway.”
Then in 1864 Denmark lost a war against the Germans, and good part of the southern part of Jutland - all south of the Esbjerg - Kolding line. The the politician came up with the slogan “win inward what was lost outward”. As a result Grindsted soon had railway lines to six corners of the world, and a hospital, a pharmacy, a bank, a hotel, a post office, and naturally a large railway station, and even street lights. Jakob Jensen tell “the railroad workers got a snaps at the tavern while the missionaries trotted past.” The area also had a new product marl, which was used to fertilize the sandy soil. And in 1926 40,000 people people visited to see an exhibition of agricultural mechanics, or as Jakob Jensen writes, “In short, one viewed oneself; ones own vitality, cultivated through centuries of isolation and now fertilized by technology.”
“You no longer see the ducks, and is not good to know why. Yes, who know what goes on in the head of a grey duck - if anything. They used to paddle around down there, in the lake, many of them, so many that you had to pull weapons on them every now and the. Now they are gone and have taken the swan with them. Only on rare occasions does the national bird come strolling up the lawn with its ducklings.” starts Jakob Jensen his report from Grindsted. This set the tone of the report very subtly, and indicate the underlying theme: man has changed nature.
Lucky Chresten of Grindsted
A large part of the report is about an entrepreneurial chemical engineer, who laid the groundwork for the changes coming up through the industrialisation of this small area of western Denmark in the 20th century. This engineer was Chresten Lundsgaard, who lost his father at an early age, and then he and his brother moved to live with the innkeeper in Nr. Snede. The brother escaped to America, while Chresten went to Copenhagen to become a chemical engineer. In 1924 he returned, and bought some factory buildings on the other side of the railway, and this was the start of Grindsted Products - today Dupont Nutrition Biosciences ApS.
Chresten Lundsgaard started making explosives, but quickly changed to growing strawberries and blackberries in a couple of greenhouses. The berries were turned in juice to make a living, while Chresten worked on isolating the flavors of the berries. The juices were sold in the local pharmacy.
Jakob Jensen writes: “One day Dr. Münster found him (Chresten) down in the basement; a flask had exploded, and there was Christen, on the floor, badly burned on his arms and legs. "Just put that bottle into your breast pocket," he told the doctor before going to the hospital. The same evening, Chresten took the railway to Copenhagen to sell the contents of the bottle, Nicordamin, a heart medicine, to Løvens Kemiske Fabrik.” Today this factory have become Leo Pharma.
Already at that time the town people worried about the entrepreneurial undertakings, as Jakob Jensen writes, “Townspeople and peasants wondered what Chresten might be up to; was it alchemy? Every now and then mysterious explosions were heard; Was Chresten some kind of shaman, engrossed in a insidious and life-threatening process? It wasn't completely wrong. Chresten Lundsgaard was a chemical engineer; he was in daily struggle with nature itself.”
"So Chresten was quite an entrepreneurial chemical engineer. But the stubborn pipe smoker died in 1938 from pneumonia while attempting to invent a cure for that disease. At that time Grindsted had become a city of thousands of inhabitant, and Grindsted Products had become the largest workplace in the city, and their destinies were now written together - and in ways that Chresten probably had not imagined,” as Jakob Jensen describe it.
Grindsted Products was after Chrestens died taken over by De Danske Spritfabrikker (DDSF), and entered the modern age of chemical engineering. Farming had become very efficient, so excess unskilled hands “wandered towards the city where they were given work at Grindsted Products and thereby could afford to settle into a detached house and buy food in the supermarket Brugsen, if they did not save up to drive to Billund to take a plane to Mallorca.” The factory grew to hundreds of employees, expanded aboard, and into new products, such as vitamins, headache pills and nerve medicine, and as Jakob Jensen notes “In the 80s, Fiber Foods was also purchased, which produced fiber-based diet products that you could fill up on before going aerobics.” Such small nuggets of information from the past make the whole report a joy to read.
40 years in Grindsted
Thorkild had, when he and Ketty moved to Grindsted, promised her, that they would only live here for four years. However, as she liked the city, the four years had become forty years.The airport in Billund was close by, and Vejle not too far away, and neither was their cottage at Henne Strand.
In January 2018 researcher from DTU released a preliminary report about pollution entering Grindsted Creek. They estimated, that about 100kg of vinyl chloride along with other things entered the creek every year. Jakob Jensen says about vinyl chloride: “Vinyl chloride has a boiling point of minus 13 degrees celsius and is therefore normally referred to as a gas. It has a slightly sweet scent and is transparent, that is, invisible, and unlike, for example, mercury best known for damaging the human nervous system, vinyl chloride is primarily known to cause abnormal cell growth, that is, cancer, in the human organism, especially the liver. Vinyl chloride is usually produced by a complicated conversion process beginning with oil, but the substance can also arise in particularly unfortunate circumstances through the decomposition of chlorinated solvents, for example by dumping or burying chemical waste in the soil. In this case, vinyl chloride is a residual product.” One clearly get the impression, that this is not a substance you want to get into contact with. The final report - in Danish - was released more than a year later.
It started in January 2018 with the heading “Research reveals massive pollution problems at Grindsted site”, and for several days Ketty Hjøllund wondered what to do. The question was “Should we now start to damage the city's reputation simply because one worried a little? Ketty knew full well that most people here in the area would rather forget - forget it all and move on. There are also home prices to take into account. But it gnawed her anyway now,” as Jakob Jensen wrote in his report. But others also speculated, and eventually Ketty contacted the newspaper “Jydske Vestkysten” with her concerns about neurological disorders in her city.
However, it was not as if nothing had been written before. “In 2006, Michael Graversen made a documentary about his hometown and its pollution problems, but the reception in Grindsted was so hostile,” states Jakob Jensen, and continues “It was well established that there were four large depots of waste and sludge in Grindsted and that heavy metals and solvents seeped into the creek and into the groundwater.” The ban on bathing in Eng Lake - including dogs - was not new. Neither was the sign at the railyard depot reading “Contaminated area - access prohibited”. If you understand Danish you can watch Michael Graversens film "Jorden er giftig" (Earth is poisinous) (click on link under title)
Jakob Jensen paints a picture, that at the time pollution out of sight was not a problem: “Since Lundsgaard time, what was left of waste and sludge had been poured into Grindsted Creek or buried in various places in the city. Later, they had started cleaning the water before putting it into the creek, and just now (1971) they were building a lake, Eng Lake, so that the worst of the mercury, tons of mercury, and other debris could fall to the bottom of the lake before it reached the creek,” and he continues: “So already in 1956, the idea came up to send grey tankers 60 km west, to Kærgård Klitplantage on the west coast of Jutland, where they dug some large holes that they could fill the waste into. It turned out to be quite a practical measure. It resulted in a bathing ban at Kærgård in 1964, but what then?” And even small inconveniences, like a ban on bathing did not worry most people at that time.
Grindsted a pure pleasure
But that summer day in 1971, when Social Minister Nathalie Lind “sat and sun bathed outside her cottage at Henne Strand and something reminiscent of cat poop reached her nostrils” things changed. She called “Jydske Vestkysten”, they followed up on the story. Over the following months a press storm rouse, and it even became a concern of the government. Jakob Jensen states: “Grindsted Products was told to stop the dumping and instead came up with the idea that ships would sail the waste a few kilometers out into the North Sea; a boat was bought for that purpose. But when Grindal first wanted to sail out of Esbjerg, the fishermen had blocked the ports exit for the sake of their catch - which in turn caused the citizens in Grindsted to hold a somewhat excited bourgeois meeting and by resolution urges Prime Minister Anker Jørgensen to intervene in the case. For Grindsted it wasn't about nature, not fish at all. No. Here was a workplace where you could with your hat in your hand get an honest good paying job, and the fishermen should not take that from them.” Grindsted Products with some help from a PR company solved the problem by sailing the waster further out into the North Sea.
What is best? Health or jobs?
Jakob Jensen tells, that at the same time the union movement filed a lawsuit against Grindsted Products on behalf of former employees affected by health problems. The company also had blood test done on employees in the vitamin department, and they turned out to have “serious high numbers” for mercury, “but the employees were not exactly told, at least not for the first many years.” However, sometimes they were shifted to other work. At the time the union prefered a so-called inconvenience allowance of two kroner (about 25 US cents) per hour to doing something about the working environment.
The people of Grindsted also adjusted to the inconveniences of having Grindsted Products in town. High school girls did not walk along the creek on days, when it smelled ugly, and the town’s housewifes learned when to leave the laundry inside with the sleeping infants, “namely the days when the vitamin department was cleansed and the air became strangely thick and yellowish.”. These inconveniences started a long time ago, Jakob Jensen explains: “Since sometime in the 1940s one had talked about the fish in Varde River - which Grindsted Creek runs into - tasted strange”, and there was also the “acid basin, which it was called - it was a psychedelic sight”, or the largest open-air pool in the Nordic region, which had been closed for a long time also because of Grindsted Creek. Bathing has also stopped at Karlsgårde Lake near Varde.
“But it was all something one had to live with; the fate of the city and the factory was one and the same, so much was known”, states Jakob Jensen. No one had expected, that humans had to suffer, and only once in ‘72 did four people die due to an explosion as the factory, “but not - as a consequence of pollution. And what was there to do about it now? The damage had been done.”
From the time of the ‘71 press storm Grindsted was associated with pollution, and Kærgård Klipplantage was an environmental issue. But not until 2008 did the government and the region decide to start cleaning up. In the 1980s mail from Grindsted was cancelled “Grindsted Area - a pure pleasure”. Since then at least the pollution from the factory had stopped, but nothing had been done about the chlorinated solvents, heavy metals, cyanide compounds and mercury under this city of 10.000 inhabitants.
“Maybe it anyway got too much with the arrogance and the consistent denial of nature. At least it is as if the peasant angler has seriously crept into the people; after centuries of superiority, one suddenly feels this ridiculous urge to grab a grey duck and say sorry.” states Jakob Jensen. So this spring the government set aside they hoped to save on administration for cleaning up Grindsted. A total of 150 million kroner to be shared with Kærgård Klitplantage.
Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen visits
Denmark’s new Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen also came by during the election campaign, but did not promise a complete clean-up. Now after the election the region have begun investigating an old landfill, where rumors indicate there is another waste depot. Meanwhile, the municipality is looking at the city's sewers. They have also updated the map of where it is safe to drill a garden well and where it is not - and banned all sailing on Lake Eng.
And soon there will be answers to the public health survey. “They will probably not be a definitive conclusion, those thing it is almost impossible to conclude on. But at least you come closer to something reminiscent of certainty. It can get uncomfortable. And expensive. But that day, when a family with children want to buy Ketty's house, it is nicest to be able to give them an honest answer. Then it must cost a little on the house price - if there should be an excess of diseases in the area,” writes Jakob Jensen, while Ketty is worried, but not without hope.
But life continues...
“Life goes on in Grindsted. Inside the Citizens Group on Facebook, people share their memories of the past and attitudes about the future. It has long been spring along the creek and it is still beautiful. Down in the south city, the municipality has inaugurated a huge nursery, and in August there is once again ‘Music in Gryden’. Ketty has been touring the Camino, again. And the factory - the factory up on Chresten Lundsgaards Vej still stands there, now on American hands and with about 500 employees, yes, Grindsted is still here,” Jakob Jensen ends his report. So on the surface everything is fine in Grindsted. But this spring all sailing on the Eng Lake was prohibited.
So, yes, there are parallels between Grindsted and Kærgård Klitplantage and Love Canal. Both are consequences of not understanding what dumping chemical waste in a local area can do in the long run. At both places society is faced with huge cleanups, and the question who should pay for this? Together with Høfde 42 near Cheminova's factory in northern Jutland, Grindsted and Kærgård Klitplantage are the most polluted sites in Denmark. However, former employees at Cheminova's facility in Ballerup have hinted, that the Ballerup site may also hide pollution.