Keep your children indoors

Posted On Thursday, 19 May 2005 02:00 Published by
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South Africa has always prided itself on being the land of the “great outdoors” where

South Africa has always prided itself on being the land of the “great outdoors” where, due to a beneficial climate and plenty of space, children are able to spend a lot of time playing outside and involved in sporting activities. But this may be the case no longer if  mining company Mineral Commodities Ltd (MRC) has its way in East London.

The company is conducting the Environmental Impact Assessment required before they establish a smelter in East London. Richards Bay residents, who presently have a smelter in their back yard, are objecting to the company’s Hillside Aluminium smelter releasing harmful chemicals into the air.

In a public notice the mining company advised that "asthmatics and others with respiratory problems, who have a low tolerance to smoke and dust, to remain indoors."  The mining company in Richards Bay has to conduct a 72 hours bypass of their Fume Treatment Centre that was damaged by fire in 2004.

Richards Bay Ratepayers Association spokesperson, Sandy Camminga stated:

"At no point during any of Hillside's EIA processes was the issue of bypasses ever made known to the public. I understand that, this time, unforeseen circumstances come into play, however, those very unforeseen circumstances should have been identified and made public during those EIA processes as "worst case scenarios". To the best of my knowledge, the public was never informed that they would be subjected to uncontrolled emissions from Hillside. Hillside has been allowed to develop, and expand, on the community's doorstep and the associated risks were never made public. Hillside's notification of bypasses does not in any way make them acceptable nor does compliance with their permit. Foskor complied in June 2002, despite having gassed 249 people."

Ardiel Soeker spokesperson for Groundwork, an environmental justice advocacy group supporting communities living next to polluting industries, believes that the Departments non-action reflects a lack of will to hold big polluters accountable. "The new air quality bill stands no chance of being effective if the lead agent for implementing the bill is too scared to confront the major industrial polluters. Communities like the Richards Bay community have fought a long and tiring battle to ensure that our Government enacts environmental legislation that is protective of people’s health. It seems that this battle will be nothing in comparison with what needs to be done to get our highly paid officials off their butts and on the job".

According to Groundwork, an alternative that should have been considered was a complete shut down of the Hillside plant to affect the necessary repairs. "It seems that the company with the blessing of the Department has put profit before the protection of the community's health and well being"

Mr Skosana, spokesperson for environmental justice group Vuka Environment Dot Com, based in Richards Bay, is angered by the action or rather non action of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism: "by allowing Hillside to go ahead with this bypass operation without proper consultation, without putting in place emergency plans and without forcing Hillside to look at alternative, less harmful ways of continuing their operations is a breach of one of the fundamental principles of our democracy - environmental justice."

According to Phillip Wilkinson of the Wildlife and Environmental Protection Society of South Africa (WESSA) in East London:

“The project is in the initial scoping phase as they (MRC) are still trying to find the ideal location for the smelter (either here or in P.E.). Once they have made this decision, they will go ahead with the EIA process. If they decide on East London they will receive little resistance from BCM (Buffalo City Municipality) as the IDZ (Industrial Development Zone) is needing occupants”.

However, according to Buffalo City Municipality spokesperson, Darby Gounden, “The Municipality has not been approached by the mining company as yet, regarding the establishment of a smelter in the area”.

And Ayanda Ramncwana, of the East London Industrial Development Zone (ELIDZ) stated: “I must inform you that the ELIDZ has no plans of bringing in a smelter into the zone – we are targeting relatively clean industries – these include the automotive industry, agro industries and pharmaceutical industries for manufacturing.  Before the land was rezoned for the IDZ, a full community and interested stakeholders consultation forum was initiated.  Secondly for all our industries that apply to manufacture from the zone, Environmental Impact Assessments are carried out to ensure that no unjust harm will be caused to the environment”. 

However a report from Mineral Commodities from October 2002 stated: “the Company has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the East London Development Zone Corporation (ELDZC) to jointly undertake a pre-qualification study into the establishment of an ilmenite smelter at East London, on the South Africa’s east coast south of Xolobeni. An agreement was signed earlier this month with engineering giant SMS DEMAG AG to conduct the component of the study relating to the smelter construction. This would be carried out at no cost to Mineral Commodities, in return for a first right of refusal to undertake the full feasibility study of the smelter facility. The ELIDZ is one of several ‘Industrial Development Zones’ or IDZ’s being gazetted by the South African Government to promote industrial development in parts of the country requiring new investment and economic upliftment, such as the depressed Eastern Cape region”

Hopefully, the Eastern Cape will not have to rely on heavy metal industries owned by overseas developers who are not concerned about the ecology of their own backyards, let alone the ecology of a remote province in South Africa. Two reports from Australia indicate the anger of residents at the irresponsibility of the mining industry. The reports follow:

NEW SOUTH WALES, AUSTRALIA

In more than a week of legal hearings, the Labor government in New South Wales has sought to block the release of vital documents relating to its approval for the reopening of a copper smelter in the heart of Port Kembla, one of the most polluted centres of the industrial city of Wollongong.

Responding to a challenge by local resident Helen Hamilton under the state's Freedom of Information Act, lawyers for the Carr government's Environment Protection Agency (EPA) argued that the parliamentary system of government precluded the handing over of the 217 documents.

Barrister Josephine Kelly for the EPA, when questioned by District Court Judge Anne Ainslie-Wallace as to where the case was heading, said the government was elected by the people and was responsible only to parliament. She accused Hamilton's barrister Tim Robertson of seeking an extreme "participatory democracy where everyone has a say in everything" as opposed to the system of "responsible and representative democracy".

Premier Carr has taken a particular interest in the smelter, having produced 11th hour legislation last year to halt Hamilton's previous legal challenge to its reopening.

Carr was then guest of honour at the ceremony to mark the commencement of construction work. In the current case, Hamilton is seeking the release of EPA documents that were subpoenaed for last year's challenge but not able to be made public once the challenge was blocked. The documents include private e-mails between EPA officials.

Hamilton's barrister told the court the documents showed that senior scientists had criticised the EPA's licensing conditions for the smelter. He also revealed that Rio Tinto, the smelter's previous owner, paid out $7 million in compensation to residents for burns on childrens' faces, ruined washing and other effects of acid rain. In some instances, the EPA had withheld information from the official inquiry conducted into the smelter's reopening.

As soon as the case opened in Wollongong last week, the EPA attempted several legal manoeuvres to prevent even the judge from reading some of the documents, arguing that the rules of evidence made them inadmissible in court. It then argued that the public release of the documents would harm the efficient running of government. It said they could only be handed over if they affected public safety and were "meaningful and valuable".

This line of argument is a further indictment of the Labor government. How can information relating to the true pollution records of a smelter that is known to contribute to ill health not be "meaningful and valuable" and relevant to public safety? The copper plant is within a few hundred metres of three schools and its giant chimney overshadows the homes of hundreds of working class families.

Last year's Workers Inquiry into the Wollongong Leukaemia and Cancer Crisis, initiated by the Socialist Equality Party, found the smelter to be one of the most likely major causes of the high incidence of leukemia and cancer deaths in the Wollongong region, especially among young people.

The case has wider implications for democratic rights. The logic of the Labor government's position is that working people have no right to challenge dangerous or life-threatening industries in their neighbourhoods, and no right to even know the true risks involved.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre is conducting Hamilton's case. The judge is due to hand down her rulings on the interpretation of the Freedom of Information legislation late this week or early next, with a final decision in the case not due until mid-August. Both sides have indicated that they will appeal to a higher court. In the meantime, construction work on the smelter is proceeding, with the resulting dust already threatening residents' health.


Publisher: Environmental Impact
Source: Environmental Impact

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