Category: Articles

Industrial scientific expertise and civil society engagement

Industrial scientific expertise and civil society engagement

Although the significance of scientific expertise is often proposed and empirically illustrated in academic literature, it is still unclear how environmental expertise becomes authoritative, and how its legitimacy can be challenged. In order to understand the interplay between scientific expertise and civil society engagement, this paper examines how industrial scientific expertise has worked with surrounding communities and civil society to inform scientific decisions, and for the co-creation of scientific knowledge formations. A particular case is analysed, that of the South Durban Industrial Basin in KwaZulu-Natal. This area comprises a mixed use of residential areas juxtaposed with heavy industries. Scientific expertise, especially within the industrial sectors, is therefore important in the prevention, alleviation and management of risks to residents, society and the environment. The study finds that there is poor engagement between scientific expertise with communities and civil society, not least when it comes to environmental issues. A reason for this is poor governance, enforcement and leadership with an overriding objective of industrial expansion for economic development by both government and industry. Another reason is that, with a few exceptions, the communities have mainly been concerned about socio-economic issues. This has resulted in a double bind, where scientific expertise and government have not shared environmental information with civil society at the same as the civil society, has not on the whole requested it.

Communities, mining corporations and corruption in South Africa

Communities, mining corporations and corruption in South Africa

During the apartheid era in South Africa, the mining industry operated without restraint and had undue influence over government decision-making. This created an environment where companies maximised profits at the expense of people and the environment.

To establish whether this is still the case I did research in Dullstroom, Mpumalanga and St. Lucia, KwaZulu-Natal. Dullstroom has a strong agri-tourism sector and is well known for its natural environment, particularly flyfishing. These attributes are now under threat from coal mining license applications. St Lucia is located near South Africa’s coastal border with Mozambique. It’s near the Great St Lucia Wetland Park, a world heritage site.

My research shows that some mining corporations still have influence over mining development in post-apartheid South Africa, although to a lesser degree. The study found that mining corporations, national and local government had a close relationship. Mining companies were strong arming government on how mining developments in the sector should happen.

Mining houses and development

The research found that corruption, poor governance and lax compliance were rife in Dullstroom. Generally, mining corporations often employed government officials to get mining licenses approved. Political connections enabled corruption between mining companies and government.

Practices like this have undermined laws that were passed after 1994 to control the negative effects of mining. For example, the National Environmental Management Act stipulates that development shouldn’t be allowed if it will lead to irreversible environmental degradation. And the South African Constitution makes provision for two rights potentially affected by mining. These are the right to a healthy environment and the right to having the environment protected.

The introduction of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution also enshrines the right of communities to express their dissatisfaction and challenge mining laws and regulations.

A number of communities have used these rights to take action against government and corporate malpractice.

One example is a civil society coalition’s successful defence of a protected area in Mabola in the north of the country.

But in other instances mining companies have found ways to circumvent community resistance. One route has been to get licenses approved by bypassing proper consultation processes with residents by influencing community leaders. For example, a community campaign against Indian mining giant Jindal, to prospect for iron ore in northern KwaZulu-Natal saw traditional leaders intimidating community members who were opposed to the development. Community members accused traditional leaders of giving Jindal permission to prospect on their land without consulting them.

Mining companies have also used the fact that people living in communities earmarked for mining are poor, and most don’t have jobs. In the Sakhelwe township in Dullstroom, the offer of jobs was to create divisions within the area. Similarly in St Lucia the local mining company promised local residents jobs and bursaries for tertiary education to get community members on their side.

Why civil society matters

The influence of companies has placed a strain on South Africa’s participatory model of democracy. This should involve the government, residents and the civic community. Local communities are often not consulted meaningfully during mining development processed.

For now it seems that the strategies being used by civil society organisations may be the best prospect for ensuring mining companies, and the government, are forced to apply the law.

There have already been some notable successes. In Xolebeni in the Eastern Cape the community has forced the mining company to stop a proposed development. The court judgment called for thorough consultation with the community prior to any granting of mining rights.

Groups such as these are gaining political momentum and support. For now, they provide the best potential for an enabling political settlement and for deliberative democracy.

It remains to be seen if these victories will have a wider impact on the future of mining in the country. A big question mark still hangs over whether the government, and the leadership of the African National Congress, will continue to be dictated to by corporations.

The signs aren’t good. The mining industry has welcomed the election of new leaders to run the ANC, signalling that it offers a new dawn for collaboration.

It also remains to be seen how civil society and local communities are able to organise and respond to any risks over mining development. This includes how local leaders will engage with their constituencies over future mining developments.

Article

 

Why there’s resistance to coal mining at a world heritage site in South Africa

Why there’s resistance to coal mining at a world heritage site in South Africa

There are fears that new mining operations in the north east of South Africa could threaten communities, tourism and the environment.

Plans to resume coal mining operations at the Mapungubwe Unesco World Heritage Site in Limpopo have been halted and it’s uncertain when mining operations will resume. What’s known is that the government is currently considering approving new mining applications in the province, with some possibly approved already. A rich coal seam runs from Zimbabwe to South Africa through the area.
Read Article

Dullstroom mining development hindering environmental sustainability

Poor participatory processes during Environmental Impact Assessments and weak governance over mining development in Mpumalanga is causing loss of environmentally sensitive tourism and conservation areas.

This is according to a series of recent published journal articles conducted by the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Tourism. The research which investigated governance processes and participation during Environmental Impact Assessments for mining development in the Dullstroom, Mpumalanga region – known for its natural environment – noted that Environmental Impact Assessments, especially for mining development, are conducted as tokenistic tools to approve developments rather than to genuinely engage with the concerns of interested and affected groups.

The research notes that despite the advent of democracy which witnessed government making considerable progress in developing the legal frameworks to manage mining development and include citizens in decision making processes, this has largely been unsuccessful. According to Professor Llewellyn Leonard from the University of Johannesburg who led the research into mining development in Mpumalanga noted that, ‘despite improvements in environmental regulations it is unfortunate that our research suggests that mining development in post-apartheid South Africa is conducted as a priority by the Department of Mineral Resources for economic development with a disregard over environmental protection and democratic processes to engage with citizens.’

Peter Arderne, a director at Dullstroom Trout Farm said that there was a need for better enforcement of regulations, but that the capacity of government was limited with both the Department of Mineral Resources and the Department of Water Resources being under-resourced and unable to carry out their functions effectively. Arderne noted that, ‘local communities and civil society groups have to put a lot of pressure on government to get them to enforce the legislation.’

According, to Peter St Clair, a resident in Dullstroom and chairman of the Dullstroom Ratepayers Association, referring to the mining Environmental Impact Assessments conducted in the area, ‘The EIA process is vital because it gives everybody the opportunity to comment but generally the mining companies and consultants abuse the process and do not consult properly nor do they give the proper notifications to get the process approved.’

Dr Koos Pretorius of the Escarpment Environmental Protection Group (EEPOG) which opposes mining development in important biodiversity areas said that, ‘there is a need for mining consultants to not view the public participation process as a box ticking exercise just to get their mining application approved. There is a need to genuinely engage with public concerns and address these during public consultations.’

The research conducted by the University of Johannesburg revealed a number of other complex factors that influenced governance and participation for mining development such as lack of government human resources, the ruling party promoting mining for social and economic upliftment, collusion between government and industry, and the Department of Mineral Resources domination of decision-making to promote mining limiting co-operative governance to name a few.

Regarding Environmental Impact Assessments more specifically, the research suggests that there is a need for environmental consultants to be impartial during assessments, including the independence of government as regulator and enforcer of environmental assessment processes rather than spearheading mining development for economic development. This would better ensure protection of environmental heritage and environmental sustainability for future generations as enshrined in the South African constitution. No government officials contacted during the research responded to interview requests to assist with data collection.

News24 Media Release, 13 March 2017: Mining development and environmental sustainability

Another political ecology of civil society reflexiveness against urban industrial risks for environmental justice

The concerns of political ecology since its beginnings as a field have been predominantly set in rural
areas with limited focus on urban industrial risks. Further, debates on the global South (often from
Anglo-American perspectives) have not fully appreciated the divergent and differentiated perceptions
of urban risks and, therefore, everyday forms of resistance within civil society. Instead, work
has mainly focused on civil society power relations against the state and industry that are driven
by coherent populist political agendas. Against this setting, this paper’s contribution aims to better
contextualize ‘other’ third world localities in political ecology through a case study of urban
industrial risks in the upper/middle income (as opposed to rural, low/lower middle income)
country, South Africa. In doing so, the paper sheds light on the derelict aspect of civil society
contestation, especially along class and ethnic lines, over urban landfill infrastructure as a livelihood resource or a health hazard. The paper draws upon frameworks of self-reflexivity and
reflexive localism as complementary to the mainstream political ecology to illuminate differentiated
civil society reflexiveness and therefore, aims to advance the discussion of other political
ecologies. The case study of the largest formal landfill site in Africa, the Bisasar landfill situated in Durban, highlights differences underlying power relations and constraints within civil society (in
leadership, social networking, resources and mistrust) that have implications for mainstream
political ecology notions of civil society coherence.

Keywords: Bisasar landfill, civil society, Durban, environmental justice, political ecology, risk
society

Leonard L. (2012) Another political ecology of civil society reflexiveness against urban industrial risks for environmental justice: The case of the Bisasar landfill, Durban, South Africa, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, Volume 33(1), 77-92.

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9493.2012.00448.x/abstract

Another World is Possible, but not without grassroots mobilisation

groundroots
It was in February that the delegation from the Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg (UJ) flew to Dakar, Senegal to attend the World Social Forum (WSF) 2011. The WSF attracted more than 60,000 people pursuing the vision of ‘Another World is Possible’, with the event becoming a symbol of hope for environmental, social and economic justice. Continue reading “Another World is Possible, but not without grassroots mobilisation”

Your solution is not my solution: The Bisarsar landfill, incineration, transfer stations and the left in the slums:

“We are recycling not only to protect the environment but for economic reasons as well. Disposal is simply too costly and too dangerous. The challenge is to redirect the flow of raw materials going to landfill into strengthening our declining local economies. The solution to pollution is self-reliant cities and counties.”
Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Waste resource recovery has grown out of decades of grassroots efforts to promote community-based recycling as an increased sustainable environmentally sound waste disposal option compared to incinerators and landfills. Zero Waste is a guiding principle that says that waste is not natural and can be eliminated with proper design, policy and advocacy efforts (Citizens agenda for Zero Waste, 2005). Many municipalities have landfill sites that have limited life and are planning either new dump sites, incinerators, transfer stations or carbon trading schemes, all at great cost, but none will achieve the 2001 Polokwane declaration waste reduction goal off “Zero Waste” by 2022.

Many valuable products and materials disposed into landfills are not fully recovered and put back into the human economy but are lost. The Bisarsar landfill like many landfills has a history of poor operation, which includes toxic leachate leaks, bad smells containing toxic particulates, gas explosions, and onsite fires, as has happened on numerous occasions at the New England Landfill site in Pietermaritzburg this year. These are unacceptable practices and the community and ‘recyclers’ have been at risk for far too long at the expense of profits by industry.

The recent peaceful marches by shack dwellers living between Bisarsar and Kennedy road, who have been seeking an existence under extremely horrific conditions is an indication of the poverty and frustrations of the informal settlements who have survived to some extent from “scavenging” off the dump. The current Bisarsar landfill like many landfills is dangerous for ‘recyclers’ since it is not a structured operation with clear safety procedures and processes. It is operated in a haphazard manner with recyclers, waste and machinery commingled in confusion with no clear guidelines. The operation of dangerous equipment such as compactors at Bisarsar is risky for recyclers and a recycler from the informal settlement has already been compacted in the past.

Ethekweni Municipality: Waste Transfer Station
This year the Ethekweni Municipality proposed to set up a Waste Transfer Station (WTS) at Electron Road, 1km from the Bisarsar landfill site. The waste transfer station would be a collection point for waste and would simply entail compaction and containerization of waste prior to bulk transport to Buffelsdraai landfill site. The proposed facility would have no safety design for inclusion off recyclers in the process and for the extraction of re-useable materials. On attending public meetings held by the city, it has been clear that the city is embarking on an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) without exploring all of the alternatives that would be of benefit to the local community as well as conserving natural resources. Exploration of all alternatives is a requirement of the EIA procedure.

However, in addition to setting up a WTS, the city is also trying to keep the current Bisarsar site open due to the municipality’s partnership with the World Bank (WB) to generate electricity by burning methane from the dump. This is despite a campaign by some community members to close down the landfill site. It is interesting to note that the WB plans to set up a similar project at the New England landfill site. On attending some of the New England landfill site monitoring committee meeting’s it has not been surprising to note that majority of the committee members did not know of the project, showing the deviousness of the WB to communicate with high-level officials and exclude grassroots levels.

Understandably, the informal dwellers at Bisarsar being part of the community are opposed to the landfill closing down since they seek an existence from it. The city has taken this opportunity to strategically divide the community and have been using the informal settlement residents to fight to keep the landfill site open by saying that the landfill site creates jobs and livelihoods. While it does, it does so in a relaxed and casual manner. The few jobs created are not long term and have no future security for the recyclers and their families.

The fight to close the Bisarsar landfill site is not a “green” issue, but rather a justice issue since the constitutional rights of the people have been ignored. The questions remain however, what will happen to the Kennedy residents and other informal dwellers if the landfill had to close? The solution is that it is important that the informal dwellers such as the Kennedy residents be employed at a formal facility, where the city formally employs them and residents enjoy all the benefits entitled to them. What the city would like to do is to keep the Kennedy residents off the city’s payroll and outsource this process or privatise it. Privatisation would not allow money to remain within the community and will ensure that the community is marginalised since private companies employ casual labour without any benefits.

The solution: Resource Recovery Facility
One of the sustainable options strategically not explored by the city has been that of a Resource Recovery Facility (RRF). groundWork has been working with the informal dwellers (Kennedy residents) to help push at meetings for a formal RRF with formal jobs in the area. A RRF, as opposed to a waste transfer station, offers a solution to waste that involves neither incineration nor a large reliance on landfills. Resource recovery seeks to redesign the way resources and materials flow through society taking a ‘whole system’ approach. It is both an ‘end of pipe’ solution that maximises recycling and waste minimisation and a design principle which ensures that products are made to be reused, repaired or recycled back into the marketplace or nature. A RRF owned by the community will create opportunities for increased civic participation and sustainable employment.

Benefits of a RRF for the community
• Communities become part of the regional solution to waste management – a Regional solution which includes well-established programs for reduction, recycling, reuse and even composting and building material recycling.
• Resource conservation – There’s growing understanding of the need to conserve natural resources and to protect land, water and air from the impacts of waste. Communities are demonstrating that they want to be involved and that they can make a huge contribution to resource conservation if given the opportunity and the right infrastructure
• Destruction of natural resources – landfills destroy vast quantities of valuable reusable resources and as such are not sustainable. With a RRF communities would be able to recover and utilise the full value of natural resources and full utility of products and materials that would otherwise be lost in a landfill.
• Community safety – landfills are not safe for recyclers since it is done informally resulting in worker deaths and injuries as mentioned. The community, therefore, has the greatest vested interest in safety and the incentive to push the city to create a safer resource management system operated in a structured manner.
• Job creation – RRF offer job creation for community members through waste recovery and collection. Waste recovery, in turn, helps to reduce waste disposal costs, environmental impacts and possibly the costs of importing new materials into the community.
• Recycling market – RRF would combine recyclable materials drop-off and would enable the products and materials to be stored and displayed to possibly create markets for buyers and sellers and increase revenue for the community.
• Cleaner production – Principles of cleaner production to possibly extend outside the RRF into society as a whole and possibly taking into account a life cycle approach supported by the principles of Extender Producer Responsibility (EPR).

Case Study
Many communities around the world such as in the United States, New Zealand, the Philippines and the United Kingdom have pushed for RRFs in place of traditional waste transfer stations to the benefit of the community. A RRF was set up for the residents in Berkeley California a few years ago. The RRF currently employs about 25 people who sort, bale and prepare the recovered material for various mills or export. The RRF also purchases material from the community, which is an additional economic benefit. The collection program further employs 15 people.

Conclusion
Finally, it must be the responsibility of the city to design and construct a RRF together with full community participation and input into the process if this is to be successful. The design should be well organised and structured to include, a setback area with appropriate screening, conveyor belts, storage capacity for incoming waste, quality control of recovered material, tipping floors, sorting pads, solid waste storage areas, an enclosed unloading area, adequate floor drains, surface water and erosion control. If communities are included in decision-making processes and their contributions are not undermined, the government can ensure that statements made in the past such as “The ANC will together with our people address the concerns of the poorest of the poor living in squatter camps like Kennedy Road, Lusaka and Mbambayi.” (ANC KwaZulu-Natal Victory Statement, Durban 1999) are realised and this will instil confidence in community perceptions around delivery by the government such as job creation. It is hoped that profits are not put before people and that the city finds solutions to waste management that is of community interest – or else we will be seeing much more marches against an incompetent government.

Dawdling actions and government: Mercury, human health and the environment

“I think the environment should be put in the category of our national security. Defense of our resources is just as important as defence abroad. Otherwise what is there to defend?”
Robert Redford

No superintendent of a hospital or manager of an industrial operation wants to be subjected to massive pressure from communities and the media linking their processes to health effects and contamination of the environment from toxins such as mercury. However, the last few decades has seen pressure sustained by communities globally, linking many industrial processes and medical waste incinerations to resulting deaths from mercury contamination linked to damaged brain cells, lung failure and birth defects. It is a fact that as long as industries and polluting technologies continue to be placed in communities, poisonous toxins such as mercury will continue to be released into the environment posing harmful effects. The impacts are born by people, usually the poor, and the hidden costs like health care are passed onto the public.

South African civil society has long been calling on the government to properly monitor and regulate industrial activities and implement cleaner systems for production. I have been disappointed to hear of processes in South Africa both proposed and past that continues to affect human health and the environment through mercury pollution.

New Castle incinerator
It has been disappointing to hear of a proposal by Iscor to establish a medical waste incinerator in Newcastle. This is despite the fact that our KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health in 2002 took a policy decision to phase out incineration at its government institutions and is a party to the Stockholm Convention that targets mercury for phase out as one of the “dirty dozen”.

Many hospitals have on-site incinerators and incinerate waste, which contains mercury at “no cost”; therefore sometimes there is no incentive to rigidly segregate waste.

The problem of health care waste and mercury is a contentious one since firstly no segregation of waste is being carried out at hospitals and mercury is disposed of together with the health care waste. According to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, up to one in 10 women in the U.S. already carry enough mercury in their blood to pose a threat of neurological damage to the foetus. The U.S. EPA ranks the health care sector as the fourth-largest source of mercury air emissions due to their contribution to medical waste incinerators.

Thor Chemicals
It has been over a decade now since the Thor Chemicals plant in Cato Ridge was shut down by the government after numerous workers in 1994 were found to have contracted mercury poisoning and two had subsequently died.

So far, the government has contracted the services of specialist waste consulting engineers who will design and oversee all the cleanup activities at Thor on behalf of the department. The engineers have already started preliminary work on the site, which includes an investigation into exactly what is there, i.e. they are preparing a detailed inventory of the stored waste. This is being done with a view to proposing the best way of dealing with the waste. An environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is under way.

What has been disappointing has been that it has taken government such a long time to take action on this issue. The Wheels of justice with regard to holding Thor accountable and protecting the health of people and the environment has been slow.

WHERE AIR POLLUTANTS COME FROM, ACCORDING TO INDUSTRY:

Mercury- From a series of secret space probes that were sent to planet Mercury by government administrations that have kicked up clouds of “mercury dust,” which have now drifted back to earth.

Thor Chemicals – incineration – national government and cement kilns

(While the government decides what to do with the waste, Summerton says the area around the closed reprocessing plant remains contaminated. He blames the ministry of the environment for not trying to find out from workers where waste was buried so that it can be cleaned up. )
– The government is dragging its feet while it should be asking workers where the mercury waste was dumped,” says Summerton. “When is the government going to do something about this?”

——————————————————————————————–
Fact Sheet: Mercury and safe disposal practices

What is Mercury?
Mercury is a silver-white liquid metal that occurs naturally in small amounts in the environment. The symbol used to describe mercury is Hg. It can change easily from solid to liquid to gas, allowing it to circulate in the atmosphere and the environment. Mercury combines with other elements, such as chlorine, sulphur, or oxygen, to form inorganic mercury compounds or “salts,” which are usually white powders or crystals. Mercury also combines with carbon to make organic mercury compounds. The most common one, methylmercury, is produced mainly by microscopic organisms in the water and soil. More mercury in the environment can increase the amounts of methylmercury that these small organisms make.
Where can Mercury be found?

Because Mercury remains liquid at room temperature, it is used in many consumer products. It can be found in hospitals and homes and is used in barometers, blood pressure instruments, thermometers, and other pressure sensing instruments. Batteries containing mercury are used in some small electronic devices like watches and children’s toys. Mining sites, Power plants, incinerators and some industries release mercury into the environment causing air and water pollution. Dental amalgam tooth fillings are also a source of mercury exposure. Metallic mercury is used to produce chlorine gas and caustic soda. Mercury salts are sometimes used in skin lightening creams and as antiseptic creams and ointments.

What happens to mercury when it enters the environment?
• Inorganic mercury (metallic mercury and inorganic mercury compounds) enters the air from mining ore deposits, burning coal and waste, and from manufacturing plants.
• It enters the water or soil from natural deposits, disposal of wastes, and volcanic activity.
• Methyl-mercury may be formed in water and soil by small organisms called bacteria.
• Methyl-mercury builds up in the tissues of fish. Larger and older fish tend to have the highest levels of mercury.

How can you be exposed to Mercury?
Mercury exposure can occur by breathing vapours, by direct skin contact or by eating food such as fish or shellfish contaminated with methylmercury and by drinking water contaminated with mercury. Mercury vapours are readily absorbed by the lungs as a result of exposure to breathing vapours in air from spills, incinerators, and industries that burn mercury-containing fuels. Mercury can enter the body through the skin, especially a wound or cut.

What are health problems associated with exposure to Mercury?
Health problems caused by Mercury depend on the amount that has entered your body, how it entered your body, how long you have been exposed to it, and how your body responds to it. The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury. Methylmercury and metallic mercury vapours are more harmful than other forms because more mercury in these forms reaches the brain. Exposure to high levels of metallic, inorganic, or organic mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and developing the fetus. Effects on brain functioning may result in irritability, shyness, tremors, changes in vision or hearing, and memory problems.

Short-term exposure to high levels of metallic mercury vapours may cause effects including lung damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, increases in blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes, and eye irritation
Children are more susceptible to mercury poisoning than adults because their brains are not yet fully developed. Exposure to small amounts of mercury over a long period of time may cause negative health effects. These include damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs. The foetus of pregnant women can also be damaged.

The symptoms of mercury include
• Impairment of vision
• Disturbances in sensations (prickling feeling, numbness) usually in the hands and feet and sometimes around the mouth
• Lack of co-ordination of movements such as writing
• Impairment of speech, hearing and walking
• Muscle weakness
• Skin rashes
• Mood swings
• Memory loss and mental disturbances

Mercury poisoning accidents
On March 2001, residents of a Vancouver apartment block were evacuated from their suites after mercury poisoning killed one of their neighbours. The cleanup crew found mercury in a dentist apartment from which mercury vapours had wound their way up plumbing and ventilation shafts to the top floor of their three storey building.

In 1996, a United States cancer researcher spilt mercury on her hand. The compound soaked through her rubber glove and into her skin. A few months later, she began losing her balance and having trouble speaking and hearing. Ten months after the accident she was dead.

In June 2001, Dewey police had found the mercury that had contaminated an apartments carpet had left a child in critical condition. The 23-month-old toddler suffered from poisoning because she crawled and played on the contaminated carpet and breathed the fumes.

In 1993, the British-owned company Thor Chemicals, the world’s biggest mercury recovery plant situated in Cato Ridge, Natal, appeared before a magistrate court on charges of “culpable homicide”. They were charged in British courts with the murder of three employees who had died from mercury poisoning.
In 1982, a suit was filed in the Japanese Supreme Court against chemical maker Chisso Corp for pouring tonnes of mercury compounds since the 1930s into Japan’s Minamata Bay. Since the early 1950s, hundreds of Japanese from the Minamata Bay area have died after eating mercury-tainted fish. Others suffered spasms and blurred vision, and babies of poisoned mothers were born with gnarled limbs.

Other examples of mercury poisoning are the Iraqi poisoning events where wheat treated with a seed dressing containing organic mercury compounds were used for bread. Also, new research has shown that methylmercury can be released directly from municipal waste landfills (Lindberg et al, 2001) and sewage treatment plants (Sommar et al, 1999).

How can you prevent mercury spills and exposure to mercury?
Mercury-containing products should be replaced with safer alternatives such as electronic devices. Mercury containing items such as fluorescent bulbs and old electronic switches should be recycled instead of thrown into the household trash.

Carefully handle and dispose of products that contain mercury, such as thermometers or fluorescent light bulbs. Do not vacuum up spilt mercury, because it will vaporise and increase exposure. If a large amount of mercury has been spilt, contact your health department. Teach children not to play with shiny, silver liquids. Properly dispose of older medicines that contain mercury. Keep all mercury-containing medicines away from children. Pregnant women and children should keep away from rooms where liquid mercury has been used. Learn about wildlife and fish advisories in your area from your public health or natural resources department

Your solution is not my solution: The Bisarsar landfill, incineration, transfer stations and the left in the slums

 “We are recycling not only to protect the environment, but for economic reasons as well. Disposal is simply too costly and too dangerous. The challenge is to redirect the flow of raw materials going to landfill into strengthening our declining local economies. The solution to pollution is self-reliant cities and counties.”

Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Waste resource recovery has grown out of decades of grassroots efforts to promote community-based recycling as an increased sustainable environmentally sound waste disposal option compared to incinerators and landfills. Zero Waste is a guiding principle that says that waste is not natural and can be eliminated with proper design, policy and advocacy efforts (Citizens agenda for Zero Waste, 2005). Many municipalities have landfill sites that have limited life and are planning either new dump sites, incinerators, transfer stations or carbon trading schemes, all at great cost, but none will achieve the 2001 Polokwane declaration waste reduction goal off “Zero Waste” by 2022.

 

Many valuable products and materials disposed into landfills are not fully recovered and put back into the human economy but are lost. The Bisarsar landfill like many landfills has a history of poor operation, which includes toxic leachate leaks, bad smells containing toxic particulates, gas explosions, and onsite fires, as has happened on numerous occasions at the New England Landfill site in Pietermaritzburg this year. These are unacceptable practices and the community and ‘recyclers’ have been at risk for far too long at the expense of profits by industry.

 

The recent peaceful marches by shack dwellers living between Bisarsar and Kennedy road, who have been seeking an existence under extremely horrific conditions is an indication of the poverty and frustrations of the informal settlements who have survived to some extent from “scavenging” off the dump. The current Bisarsar landfill like many landfills are dangerous for ‘recyclers’ since it is not a structured operation with clear safety procedures and processes. It is operated in a haphazard manner with recyclers, waste and machinery commingled in confusion with no clear guidelines. The operation of dangerous equipment such as compactors at Bisarsar is risky for recyclers and a recycler from the informal settlement has already been compacted in the past.

 

Ethekweni Municipality: Waste Transfer Station

This year the Ethekweni Municipality proposed to set up a Waste Transfer Station (WTS) at Electron Road, 1km from the Bisarsar landfill site. The waste transfer station would be a collection point for waste and would simply entail compaction and containerization of waste prior to bulk transport to Buffelsdraai landfill site. The proposed facility would have no safety design for inclusion off recyclers in the process and for the extraction of re-useable materials. On attending public meetings held by the city, it has been clear that the city is embarking on an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) without exploring all of the alternatives that would be of benefit to the local community as well as conserving natural resources. Exploration of all alternatives is a requirement off the EIA procedure.

 

However, in addition to setting up a WTS, the city is also trying to keep the current Bisarsar site open due to the municipality’s partnership with the World Bank (WB) to generate electricity by burning methane from the dump. This is despite a campaign by some community members to close down the landfill site. It is interesting to note that the WB plans to set up a similar project at the New England landfill site. On attending some of the New England landfill site monitoring committee meeting’s it has not been surprising to note that majority of the committee members did not know off the project, showing the deviousness of the WB to communicate with high level officials and exclude grassroot levels.

 

Understandably, the informal dwellers at Bisarsar being part of the community are opposed to the landfill closing down since they seek an existence from it. The city has taken this opportunity to strategically divide the community and have been using the informal settlement residents to fight to keep the landfill site open by saying that the landfill site creates jobs and livelihoods.  While it does, it does so in a relaxed and casual manner. The few jobs created are not long term and have no future security for the recyclers and their families.

 

The fight to close the Bisarsar landfill site is not a “green” issue, but rather a justice issue since the constitutional rights of the people have been ignored. The questions remains however, what will happen to the Kennedy residents and other informal dwellers if the landfill had to close? The solution is that it is important that the informal dwellers such as the Kennedy residents be employed at a formal facility, where the city formally employs them and residents enjoy all the benefits entitled to them. What the city would like to do is to keep the Kennedy residents off the city’s pay roll and outsource this process or privatise it. Privatisation would not allow money to remain within the community and will ensure that the community is marginalized since private companies employ casual labour without any benefits.

 

The solution: Resource Recovery Facility

One of the sustainable options strategically not explored by the city has been that of a Resource Recovery Facility (RRF). groundWork has been working with the informal dwellers (Kennedy residents) to help push at meetings for a formal RRF with formal jobs in the area. A RRF as opposed to a waste transfer station offers a solution to waste that involves neither incineration nor a large reliance on landfills. Resource recovery seeks to redesign the way resources and materials flow through society taking a ‘whole system’ approach. It is both an ‘end of pipe’ solution that maximises recycling and waste minimisation and a design principle which ensures that products are made to be reused, repaired or recycled back into the marketplace or nature. A RRF owned by the community will create opportunities for increased civic participation, and sustainable employment.

 

Benefits of a RRF for the community

  • Communities become part of regional solution to waste managementRegional solution which includes well established programs for reduction, recycling, reuse and even composting and building material recycling.
  • Resource conservationThere’s growing understanding of the need to conserve natural resources and to protect land, water and air from the impacts of waste. Communities are demonstrating that they want to be involved and that they can make a huge contribution to resource conservation if given the opportunity and the right infrastructure
  • Destruction of natural resources – landfills destroy vast quantities of valuable reusable resources and as such are not sustainable. With a RRF communities would be able to recover and utilize the full value of natural resources and full utility of products and materials that would otherwise be lost in a landfill.
  • Community safety – landfills are not safe for recyclers since it is done informally resulting in worker deaths and injuries as mentioned. The community therefore has the greatest vested interest in safety and the incentive to push the city to create a safer resource management system operated in a structured manner.
  • Job creation – RRF offer job creation for community members through waste recovery and collection. Waste recovery in turn helps to reduce waste disposal costs, environmental impacts and possibly the costs of importing new materials into the community.
  • Recycling market – RRF would combine recyclable materials drop-off and would enable the products and materials to be stored and displayed to possibly create markets for buyers and sellers and increase revenue for the community.
  • Cleaner production – Principles of cleaner production to possibly extend outside the RRF into society as a whole and possibly taking into account a life cycle approach supported by the principles of Extender Producer Responsibility (EPR).

 

Case Study

Many communities around the world such as in the United States, New Zealand, the Philippines and the United Kingdom have pushed for RRFs in place of traditional waste transfer stations to the benefit of the community. A RRF was set up for the residents in Berkeley California a few years ago. The RRF currently employs about 25 people who sort, bale and prepare the recovered material for various mills or export. The RRF also purchases material from the community, which is an additional economic benefit. The collection program further employs 15 people.

 

Conclusion

Finally, it must be the responsibility of the city to design and construct a RRF together with full community participation and input into the process if this is to be successful. The design should be well organized and structured to include, a setback area with appropriate screening, conveyor belts, storage capacity for incoming waste, quality control of recovered material, tipping floors, sorting pads, solid waste storage areas, an enclosed unloading area, adequate floor drains, surface water and erosion control. If communities are included in decision making processes and their contributions are not undermined, government can ensure that statements made in the past such as “The ANC will together with our people address the concerns of the poorest of the poor living in squatter camps like Kennedy Road, Lusaka and Mbambayi.” (ANC KwaZulu-Natal Victory Statement, Durban 1999) are realized and this will instil confidence in community perceptions around delivery by government such as job creation. It is hoped that profits are not put before people and that the city finds solutions to waste management that are of community interest – or else we will be seeing many more marches against an incompetent government.

 

 

Government and industry – Killing us softly: Dioxins and human health

“No incinerator, no matter how sophisticated, can prevent the release of dioxins into the environment…”
Dr Paul Connett

Civil society has long been calling on the government to stop polluting incinerators and to replace them with non-burn technologies. One of the reasons for this outcry over incineration by civil society is due to the formation and release of toxic chemicals such as dioxins into the environment and the effects to human health.

While many Northern and some Southern countries like the United States, France, Japan, Greece and the Philippines (to name a few), have shifted away from incineration because of the serious health and the environmental risks it poses due to dioxin formation, South Africa continues to witness a growing number of proposals for new incinerators. groundWork has during its formation been involved in fighting various incineration proposals around the country. Recent proposals include that of Holmic cement and their nation-wide push to burn hazardous waste in their cement kilns. There is also the on-going struggle to get the government to shut down one of the largest operating incinerators in KwaZulu-Natal, the Ixopo incinerator. It is flabbergasting that government has continued to allow the Ixopo incinerator to operate since audit reports conducted in the past have shown that the incinerator has failed to prevent the release of dioxins into the environment.

groundWork and the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) have since November 2003 being taking court action to stop the Gauteng Department of Agriculture, Conservation, Environment and Land Affairs (GDACEL) and company Aids Safe Waste to commission a medical waste incinerator at its premises in Benoni South. Of serious concern is the fact that government has now given the go-ahead for a proposal by Aids Safe Waste to operate a medical waste incinerator in Johannesburg, against the concerns of civil society. This is also despite the fact that an independent scientist sent by groundWork and the LRC to the medical waste incinerator site during a trial test indicated that many conditions set by groundWork, the LRC and the GDACEL were not met, which included measuring for dioxin releases. Was this a strategy by Aids Safe Waste to purposely act oblivious about the science of dioxin formation, and not test for dioxins during the trial burn due to the fact the final report would show unacceptable levels of dioxin formation?

Compared to Aids Safe Waste, waste company EnviroServ Waste Management (Pty) Ltd which had originally applied to government to operate a medical waste incinerator in Shongweni, has subsequently halted the proposal due to public opposition by local communities and environmental activist, and has now proposed to set up a non-burn technology (an autoclave) as opposed to incineration. EnviroServ has also announced at a recent Aloes Environmental Monitoring Committee in the Eastern Cape, that the company was moving away from using incinerators to dispose of medical wastes. Instead, it plans to establish large autoclaves at regional centres to sterilise collected waste. I must commend EnviroServ on considering a shift to alternative technology considering that non-burn technologies emit far fewer pollutants. This move by EnviroServ shows how powerful civil society can be in influencing decision-making processes, and that some private institutions are taking the concerns of civil society seriously.

The Stockholm Convention on POPs which has been ratified by South Africa targets dioxins as one of the “dirty” chemicals being stressed for ultimate elimination by the global community. Will our government now go against the obligations enshrined in the Stockholm Convention considering that the Stockholm Convention identifies incineration and cement kilns as the first and third most polluting processes releasing dioxins into the environment? Will our government continue to allow its people to suffer from environmental injustices and poor health by continuing to approve polluting technologies because of either poor decisions, industrial domination or both?

Considering the pressures from civil society against incineration and toxic chemical formation such as dioxins, governments and industry must consider substitute methods for treatment of their waste such as looking into alternative technology processes and cleaner production mechanisms. However, while groundWork welcomes the move from incineration to non-burn alternatives, there are several other important processes which need to be happening in parallel. For example, hospitals need to be assisted in developing waste minimisation plans. Secondly, segregation of waste needs to be occurring in hospitals. Chemical, radioactive and cytotoxic wastes may be forbidden from entering some non-burn technologies such as autoclaves. However, as waste segregation is not being fully conducted in South African hospitals, it is highly likely that such materials would get into the unit, thereby posing environmental hazards.

What are dioxins?
Dioxins are one of the most toxic pollutants known to science. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there appears to be no “safe” level of exposure to dioxin. Once dioxins have entered the environment or body, they are there to stay due to their uncanny ability to dissolve in fats and to their rock-solid chemical stability. Dioxins are a global problem moving from warmer to colder climates through the air and other media. Transboundary movement of dioxins can occur directly through environmental transportation processes or indirectly through feed and foodstuffs imported from overseas. It is, therefore, important that action to control them is taken at an international level

How can dioxins get into the environment?
Dioxins are a group of chemicals formed during the burning of industrial, hazardous and household waste. The burning of hazardous waste in cement kilns also produces dioxin. They also are formed during the making of some herbicides and germicides, and the bleaching of paper pulp. Soils near burn areas also may be contaminated with dioxins. Once in the air dioxin can settle on our land and get into our rivers and lakes. Rainwater can carry herbicides containing dioxins from farm fields into surface waters, and some factories discharged dioxin-contaminated waste directly into surface water. In lakes, rivers, streams and ponds, dioxins tend to settle to the bottom and cling to solid materials such as mud or clay (sediment).

How can you be exposed to dioxin?
Dioxins can enter the body by eating or drinking contaminated food, through the air we breathe or by skin contact. Most people are exposed to dioxins by eating contaminated fish, meats and dairy products. When dioxins settle on our grazing lands, animals such as cows feed on these lands and contaminate the milk they produce. Fish may ingest sediments containing dioxins and retain the dioxin in their body fat and tend to have the highest dioxin levels. As dioxins move up the food chain it gets stronger and bio-accumulates. Dust contaminated with dioxins from burning may be found on the outer surfaces of fruits and vegetables.

• Some workers such as cement workers may be exposed to dioxins during the burning of hazardous waste in cement kilns. Workers may also be exposed to dioxin during the manufacture of some herbicides, germicides or solvents. Waste incinerator workers and persons who burn household waste may come in contact with dioxins in ash, soil, gases or smoke. Smoke and ash can settle on fruits and vegetables.

• If ash is mixed into the garden soil, chemicals can be taken up by crops
Industrial accidents have been responsible for most cases of dioxin poisoning in humans. Firefighters and cleanup crews responding to electrical system fires, as well as hazardous waste accidents, also may be exposed to dioxins.

How can dioxins affect your health?
Studies have shown that dioxin exposure at high levels in exposed chemical workers leads to an increase in cancer. Other studies in highly exposed people show that dioxin exposure can lead to reproductive and developmental problems, increased heart disease and increased diabetes (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, 2001).
Short-term exposure of human to high levels of dioxins may result in skin lesions, such as chloracne and patchy darkening of the skin, and altered liver function. Long-term exposure is linked to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions (WHO, 1999).

When we are exposed to dioxins our body stores these chemicals as fatty tissue. Dioxins are passed from mother to baby during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Dioxin disrupts the way our genes and hormones work. Other health problems resulting from dioxin exposure include:

• Cancer, diabetes, birth defects, developmental delay, allergies, learning problems, endometriosis, smaller testicle size, lower sperm count, reproductive changes, immune problems.
Examples of Dioxin exposure
• A study in Japan on two workers who had been employed for over eight years, at what is now an obsolete medical waste incinerator for over eight years, found blood levels of dioxins were still elevated several years after their employment ceased (Schecter et al, 1999).
• A study in the US at a coal-fired incinerator showed workers exposed to higher levels of dioxin in air at the workplace. Levels of dioxin in the workplace areas were higher than in the ambient air concentrations from the region (Pilspanen et al, 1992).
• A study at a municipal waste incinerator in Germany was undertaken in which blood samples were taken from 56 male workers and the level of dioxin measured in a combined blood sample. The results were compared to workers who had no exposure to the toxic chemical. Incinerator workers were shown to have 30% higher level of dioxins (Schecter et al, 1991).
How to avoid dioxin exposure?
• Ways to avoid exposure to dioxins include washing fruits and vegetables before eating.
• Do not burn household waste that would give off toxic smoke and vapours, instead reduce, reuse, recycle and compost your waste.
• Oppose any proposal to set up incinerators in your community as well as the burning of hazardous and industrial waste in cement kilns.

The extent of dioxin environmental contamination in South Africa is not known. South Africa does not even have a dioxin testing facility. The fact that this unsafe manmade chemical is allowed to be released into our environment without adequate testing constitutes what is now being acknowledged within the scientific community as the largest uncontrolled experiment in our history. Therefore the continued production and release of dioxins can be seen as violating our constitutional rights as South Africans in that everyone has the right “not to be subjected to medical or scientific experiments without their informed consent”. Therefore the fact that our government continues to allow polluting incinerators to operate and spew out dioxins into the environment is highly questionable. No doubt, the future sprouting of proposals for incinerators will be a battle between civil society on the one hand and industry and government on the other. It is however hoped that government will meet the international commitments agreed upon and dispel the myth that government officials simply earn fat pay cheques and drive fancy vehicles.