MDMA Gangs Are Literally Polluting Europe

Drug makers in Belgium and the Netherlands are poisoning nature reserves and damaging wastewater plants as they compete to supply the world with stimulants.
June 18, 2021, 9:48am
MDMA Gangs Are Literally Polluting Europe
Barrels of chemical waste from the production of synthetic drugs dumped in a stream near Venlo in the Netherlands. Photo: Marcel van Hoorn/AFP via Getty Images

BRABANTSE WAL, Netherlands-Belgium border – In March, park ranger Erik de Jonge was called to investigate an unnatural pile of branches and foliage in a forest clearing in the Brabantse Wal nature reserve on the Netherlands-Belgium border. Underneath the debris he was surprised to see, and smell, a deep pit oozing with a black, noxious sludge covered by an ugly white foam. 

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Tests revealed that this was the largest ever example of what Dutch authorities are now calling “drug pits” – hidden trenches used by the country’s large scale MDMA and speed producers to dump tonnes of toxic waste from illicit drug labs. 

The authorities estimate the contaminated site, visited by VICE World News earlier this month, will take six months to clear and has impacted local drinking water supplies and vegetation. They said had been used on several occasions to dump drug-making chemical byproducts including hazardous chemicals such as benzene, toluene, propanal and acetone. 

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The drug waste pit found at Brabantse Wal in Belgium. Photo: Erik de Jonge

The noxious dump in Brabantse Wal is one of many new ways drug gangs in the Netherlands and Belgium are disposing of the toxic waste created in one of the world’s largest MDMA and amphetamine producing regions. While drug users may be aware of the price of an ecstasy pill and its psychoactive effects, the collateral damage on the environment caused by this huge illicit, and therefore unregulated, industry is not understood. 

Drug gangs in the Netherlands and Belgium, which have started setting up equally toxic meth labs and cocaine extraction labs on top of well-established MDMA and speed production industries, are increasingly resorting to dumping chemicals in more remote, pristine nature reserves and forests in order to escape detection. 

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“We have found a lot of waste here over the past 10 years,” said de Jonge. “Some years, I have found 20 to 30 dumps from synthetic drug labs.” In the Netherlands and Belgium over the last five years there have been 1,178 incidents of drug waste dumping, with chemicals found dumped in barrels, into streams and thrown out of cars. They have even coined a term, Drugsafval, for all the waste dumped from the region’s drug labs.

In the Netherlands, drug gangs have started more frequently discharging chemicals, such as ammonia, into manure pits, which are then unwittingly used by farmers to further pollute their land and damage vegetation. The Netherlands Forensic Institute has documented the presence of amphetamine residues in corn lice, showing that living creatures can absorb such drug compounds.

Drug waste is also being flushed in huge amounts into sewage systems. In one incident in Belgium in March, so much drug production waste was dumped by a drug gang into the area’s sewage system it temporarily disabled the region’s wastewater treatment plant. The high acidity of dumped chemicals, including acetone, altered the pH of the water at Aquafin’s plant in Rekem to such an extent it killed all the “good” bacteria used to extract pollutants and the plant could not properly clean the water. 

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The Aquafin Wastewater plant in Rekem in Belgium was unable to purify water due to chemicals flushed into the sewers. Photo: Daniela De Lorenzo

Two employees working during the first shifts were injured by the chemicals: “It happened at 1AM, when we received an alarm,” Yves Wolfs, team coordinator at Aquafin told VICE World News. “The toxic vapours released were very acidic. My eyes were really dry and I had to go to an eye specialist and into observation for two weeks,” he said. The toxic corrosive chemicals destroyed his colleague’s protective gloves, burning his hands. It was the first time such an accident has happened in the 25 years Wolfs has worked at the plant. 

It took two days to fully restore the plant’s functionality, during which time the water was partly untreated and entered waterways where locals fish. Joan Deckers, Operational Manager at Aquafin, said that it had to transport new batches of bacteria in four trucks to restore the natural pH of the wastewater plant. 

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In response to the growing popularity of drugs such as MDMA, the number of drug labs within The Netherlands and Belgium have multiplied to serve the global market. In the last five years, over 400 labs have been seized by national police bodies, with the number increasing year after year. Just this month two amphetamine labs, including waste ready to be dumped, have been found in Limburg in Belgium and drug waste and chemicals were found in a shed in Doonterland in North Brabant over the border in the Netherlands.   

The high acidity of drug waste, much of which is made up of solvents, causes water contamination while also lowering the pH of the surrounding environment, causing immediate damage to local ecosystems. Contaminated surface water can cause the death of aquatic life, microorganisms and plants residing within streams and rivers, while soil can be made toxic and kill off vegetation. During 2019 and 2020 the Belgian Soil Agency was called upon 10 times to extract contaminants from soil in areas where drug waste was dumped. 

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Drug waste leaks in a stream in Belgium before being being removed by fire brigade units. Photo: Belgian Federal Police

The province of Limburg is the epicentre of drug production in Belgium, where 60 percent of the total number of drug labs are found: “There is usually always a Dutch citizen involved in the setting of drug labs too,” said Carine Buckens, Public Prosecutor of the Belgian Limburg Prosecutors Office.  

A study from 2017 estimated that for 1kg of MDMA and amphetamines, respectively between 6-10 kg and 10-20 kg of chemical waste is produced. It said the amount of drug waste produced in drug labs in the Netherlands to be around could be around 7,000 tons a year, while in Belgium it is thought to be at least 1,500 tons. 

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However, only a small proportion of this waste – commonly dumped along the border between the two countries – is ever found. Over 2019 and 2020, Belgian Federal Police unearthed 375 tonnes of drug waste, the most recent hauls being over 100 blue barrels and 14 transparent barrels found in a forest near Zutendaal in April and in Bocholt in May. According to Belgium’s National Institute of Criminalistics and Criminology (INCC), only around 20 percent of drug waste is ever found.  

Making MDMA, speed and meth is as toxic as making cocaine and involves the mixing of a cocktail of hazardous chemicals. Highly acidic chemicals and reagents such as formic acid, ammonium formate or formamide are needed to ignite chemical reactions and crystallisation enabling the production of MDMA. Depending on the type of synthetic drug and production methods, reagents such as naphthalene, formamide, methanol, methylamine, ammonia, hydrochloric acid, formic acid, sulfuric acid, safrole, methanol, acetone, ethanol, and ether are used during production. 

Methamphetamine production is even more toxic than MDMA and amphetamines, according to Natalie Meert, Forensic Expert at the INCC. She said mercury is used to produce the crystals. “This is a highly toxic metal,” she adds. Mercury is indeed a persistent, bio-accumulative toxic pollutant, that accumulates in water laid sediments where it converts into toxic methyl mercury and can enter the food chain.

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Aside from the environmental risks, drug waste dumps pose a direct hazard to those who have to clean them up or hunt them down. Firefighters in Belgium are now offered training on how to deal with drug spills, while a toxic dump from an MDMA lab in a canal in Limburg forced clean up teams to upgrade diving equipment. Incredibly, teams of specialist park rangers set up to tackle toxic waste dumping in Dutch national parks and reserves have been threatened with gang violence. Meanwhile these chemicals also pose a risk to those making the drugs. In 2019 three Dutch drug cooks were found dead in a drug lab in Hechtel-Eksel Belgium, due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

There is growing evidence that drug producers are dumping their chemicals further afield, for example on the border with Germany, where local police are unaware of the practice of the existence of drugsafval. “We have heard of cases in Wallonia [the French-speaking southern part of Belgium] where the police just remove what they found and might not know that it was drug waste,” said Buckens.   

Despite the environmental hazards posed by the illegal drug trade, the authorities have little idea of the extent of the problem or how much damage is being caused when they do find dumps. 

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While the number of drug labs being found is going up, the number of waste dumps being uncovered is falling, which experts believe means that criminals are finding less obvious places to dump their waste. Follow up visits to locations in which drug waste dumps have been found are rarely carried out, so the long term consequences of such chemical waste on the environment goes unchecked. 

“I want to find the drug labs before the dumps,” says Buckens, whose department spends €500,000 [£430,000] a year cleaning up drug labs and drug waste dumps. Yet in both countries, resources destined to fight the war on drug waste are limited. Buckens has had to enlist the help of locals to help hunt down the drug dumps and has set up an anonymous hotline for reporting drug lab crime. 

Buckens wants to educate young people about the collateral damage of recreational drugs. “Students have been marching for climate, but they don’t see the damage drugs create here,” she said. But convincing them will not be easy. While the worsening damage caused to the environment by northern Europe’s illegal stimulant drug industry should provide a nasty taste in the mouth for millions of drug users, it is unlikely that this will reduce demand

When the Trimbos Institute, a drugs and mental health charity in the Netherlands, investigated how concerned drug users were about crime and environmental damage relating to drug production and supply, even creating a virtual 3D experience to show the impact of drug waste on the environment, they were surprised by the response. Despite drug users expressing concern about the environmental damage and crime associated with drug production and trafficking, they did not believe they were responsible for it. 

If you can’t stop people taking the drugs that are creating this toxic waste – and these stimulants are not the only drugs ruining the planet – the next best thing is to try and make sure they are made in a way that reduces the harm to nature as much as possible. And the only way that can be done is by introducing regulation, in other words, by legalising the stimulant drug industry. 

“MDMA and other amphetamines are produced legally for medical uses in regulated environments that are not associated with any of the environmental carnage we see with criminal drug production,” said Steve Rolles of drug policy reform group Transform. “These are problems with prohibition, not with drugs such as MDMA. Governments have the option to regulate, and to clean up the industry, but choose not to, so they have to take responsibility for these entirely avoidable harms.”

This report' was made possible with the support of the Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism