Gateway to the Vercors Massif, the town of Saint-Just-de-Claix can be proud of authentic landscapes, where Isère and Bourne flow happy days. Ostensibly. Because the water of these two rivers is regularly soiled, when it is not accompanied by a foul odor. Whose fault is it ? At the cheese factory Étoile du Vercors, a subsidiary of Lactalis, which, despite a name that smells of the soil, has for years been dumping milk residues and disinfectants for the cleaning of the production line.
But this state of affairs could soon be sanctioned by justice. Already targeted by an investigation into the salmonella-contaminated infant milk scandal at its Craon site in Mayenne, the multinational is also being prosecuted in correctional facilities in Grenoble for pollution. According to France Nature Environment (FNE), “no less than 28 chemicals are released into the watercourse”, including “a bleach extract very toxic to aquatic organisms”. That's more than 200 tons of chemicals per year. “The pollution may seem insignificant, because there is a lot of flow. But it is not because they are diluted that these products are not harmful, “says Joel O'Baton, the mayor of Saint-Just-de-Claix.
“It's an old pollution, which is not new. And nothing has ever been done, “adds Jacques Pulou, vice president of Frapna Isere. And for good reason, it goes back to … 1942, date of creation of the cheese factory, which at the time treated only a few hundred liters of milk. But it's the beginning of a long story.
Aware of the risks to the environment, Étoile du Vercors plans, in early 2000, to connect to the future collective sewerage network. The equipment, which arrives at the doors of the cheese factory, is completed in 2014. Except that in the meantime the Mayenne group took the reins of the company (in 2011) … and changed its tune. And now wants to build its own autonomous treatment plant.
A showdown between the town of Isère and the agro-food giant
On several occasions, Étoile du Vercors is applying for a building permit. In vain. They are refused by the mayor, who wants the multinational to connect to the public network to participate in the operating costs of the equipment (it cost 22 million euros) and for the treatment of wastewater remains under public control. “After having forced farmers to treat their effluents and the administrators to connect, I can not let such a serious company build an open-air station,” argues the elected.
In April 2016, the Isère prefecture authorized the company to process up to 100,000 liters of milk equivalents, subject to setting up a device to treat its effluents within three months. But Lactalis turns a deaf ear. The state then puts the cheese house on notice to stop the pollution and “launches a consignment procedure of more than 2 million euros”. Always nothing.
Environmental associations decide to get involved. In March 2017, Frapna Isère, FNE, the Friends of the Earth and the Isère Fisheries Federation filed a complaint. An investigation is opened in the wake, which resulted in a trial in correctional.
General interest forgotten in favor of private interests
“From the beginning of 2012, the cheese factory has made every effort to be able to treat its effluents,” defends Lactalis, who did not wish to express himself, referring Humanity to his statement. The connection to the station would not be technically possible, according to the multinational, because not compatible with their waste. The only solution would lie in the construction of its own station but it is blocked by the mayor, who “persist in refusing to grant the permit,” she denounces. However, according to Anne Roques, a lawyer at the FNE, “it would have been possible to put in place transitional solutions to stop pollution: chartering trucks to receive the effluents and send them to a facility authorized to treat them.”
According to the mayor, “It's not a financial problem. Lactalis does not want us to know how he works. ” To achieve this, the group does not hesitate to resort to blackmail. “The Mayor's refusal de facto prevents any effluent treatment. The only solution would be to stop the production of the cheese factory, which would have consequences for the 150 employees and 84 milk producers in the region “, thus threatening the company. “As it is Lactalis and there are jobs to the key, the state has left hanging,” interprets the lawyer FNE. In this context, some people question the inefficiency of the public authorities. “It is incomprehensible that a global giant continues to pollute a natural environment without having to comply with regulations,” says Jacques Pulou. “We feel that orders come from much higher. Lactalis has support, “Joel O'Baton says.
Will the French agro-food giant be condemned for pollution? At the hearing of November 12, the prosecutor of Grenoble was surprisingly intransigent: “It was known that Lactalis had the ability to poison milk powder; we know now that he can poison water, that he knows it and continues, “he said, implying that the government is doing nothing. And, extremely rare, the representative of the public prosecutor asked for a fine of 500,000 euros, the maximum incurred, against the cheese factory. The deliberation is expected on January 14th. In the meantime, the wastewater of the multinational is still poured into the Isère …