Chemical Safety and Obsolete Stocks: Profits before people or responsible waste management

“By accepting responsibility, we take effective steps toward our goal: an inclusive human society on a habitable planet, a society that works for all humans and for all nonhumans. By accepting responsibility, we move closer to creating a world that works for all.”
Sharif M. Abdullah

It was on October 4-8, that I travelled to Nairobi, Kenya to attend the second Preparatory Committee (PrepCom2) meeting to adopt a Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM). The SAICM is a global, intergovernmental strategic plan in support of chemical safety objectives. SAICM collectively with the Africa Stockpiles Programme (ASP), which is headed by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), seeks to manage chemicals in a responsible manner and employ strategies to clean up and prevent future accumulation of unwanted stocks of pesticides under the National Implementation Plan (NIP).

Since chemical safety is such a contentious issue, I was not surprised to see that the Nairobi meeting drew delegates from more than one hundred governments. Representatives of Environment ministries and agencies predominated but ministries and agencies from Health, Agriculture, Labour, Industry, and Foreign Affairs were also present. Other active participants included 30 public interest NGOs from 18 countries, industry trade organisations, trade unions, and academic organisations.

During the SAICM meeting, NGOs from Africa and other continents met to discuss concerns regarding the destruction of obsolete pesticides using incineration. Since one of the plans of action in SAICM is chapter 19 of Agenda 21 which calls on governments to commitment to sound management of chemicals throughout their life cycle and of hazardous wastes for sustainable development, and since the disposal of obsolete pesticides has still to be decided under the ASP, the NGOs found it disturbing to hear about the enormous pressure by industry and certain government officials in South Africa calling for the burning of obsolete pesticides and herbicides (hazardous waste) in cement kilns.

In South Africa, many cement industries such as Natal Portlands Cement (NPC) and Holcim Cement, are seeking Department of Agriculture and Environment (DAE) approval to do this. The KwaZulu-Natal DAE officials have requested NPC to burn agricultural chemicals, which could mean obsolete pesticides and herbicides. The lack of communication between government departments is apparent considering the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) held a workshop early last year for the development of a NIP for the management of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and strategies to clean up and prevent future accumulation of unwanted stocks of pesticides under the ASP.

The consideration of such a process by the government will virtually undermine the objectives of the POPs treaty. The Stockholm Convention also gives preferential treatment for the use of non-combustion-based approaches to the management of waste, including the disposal of stockpiles of hazardous waste.

Regarding the recent enactment of the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Bill, proposed amendments to the Bill were a result of civil society organisations requesting the Portfolio Committee on Environment and Tourism in February 2004, to hold back the Bill and request the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) to amend the Bill. I found it flabbergasting to hear that in August 2004, when DEAT presented the amendments to the Portfolio Committee on Environment and Tourism as requested, however, the DEAT included additional clauses 26-28, without input from civil society that would allow for the incineration of hazardous waste.

The South African government does not have a policy on hazardous waste being used as fuels or a policy on the process of combusting. There is no mention made of “controlled fuels or alternative fuels” in the White Paper on Integrated Pollution and Waste Management of March 2000. This policy informs the air quality legislation. So the additional clause by the government was unlawful.

Personally, what is also shocking is how civil society is being undermined in this whole process. Civil society organisations such as groundWork have addressed in writing community concerns to the various persons in government since 3 October 2002 to as recent as 19 February 2004. There has been no substantive reply response to any of the requests to work with the government on policy for alternative fuels including tyres, hazardous waste, government’s position on cement kiln incineration and government position on hazardous waste incineration. The inclusion in the legislation of a process allowing (for the setting of emissions standards) for the use of controlled fuels in a combustion process effectively pre-empts debate on whether such fuels and combustion processes are appropriate, necessary and without negative environmental and health impacts.

Industries, such as the cement industry, have been calling for the “alternative fuels” / “controlled fuels” and have lobbied government extensively, going as far as taking the Deputy Minister of Environment to Europe to view this technology – a technology which we have neither agreed to nor debated in the context of policy formulation and strategy yet we now find it included in our legislation.

During SAICM the NGO’s tabled a letter to the ASP Partners, particularly the lead intergovernmental organisations, to clarify their position regarding the possible use of proposed or existing incineration and cement kiln facilities in Africa to destroy the stockpiled waste. We still await a response.

Lichtenburg Community
On the 2 November, groundWork travelled to Lichtenburg (Ditsobotla Local Municipality – DLM) to meet Mr. J. Bogatsu, Mayor of Lichtenburg. Holcim cement located in Dudfield, Lichtenburg, has proposed to replace their existing coal fuel with hazardous waste. We were not surprised to hear that Holcim had misinformed the mayor of their proposal; since he was not aware that hazardous waste would be burnt in his community. No draft Environmental Impact Reports have been forwarded to the municipality for comment, nor any proper consultation with the surrounding communities conducted.

I was shocked to see that in addition to Holmic cement, other cement industries such as Pretoria Portlands Cement (PPC), Natal Portlands Cement (NPC) and Lafarge Cement were also present in the community. I was concerned that since the community was largely an agricultural producing area that the pollution arising from the burning of hazardous waste in cement kilns will have an effect on this sector, since the release of dioxins would cause contamination of the environment.

The municipality was glad to hear that previous attempts to carry out the same process by Peacock Bay Environmental Services (PBES) to build a hazardous waste incinerator in Port Alexander in the Northern Cape was vetoed by the Free State Government in 2002 after the local Mayor of the Metsimaholo Municipality (Sasolburg) and the local council disapproved of the proposal to burn hazardous waste in Sasolburg. The mayor has since addressed letters to both the Deputy Minister and MEC to consider seriously vetoing this proposal until the government has a clear policy on this issue.

Meeting with National Union of Mineworkers (NUM)
On November 5 and subsequently on the 25th, groundWork was invited by NUM an affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU) to inform them of the proposal by the cement industries to burn hazardous waste in their cement kilns and the effect that this would have on workers. Many representatives of NUM were unaware of these proposals and were shocked during the presentation to hear that studies as recently as 2003 regarding the burning of hazardous waste in cement kilns showed workers suffering from interstitial lung disease, pleural thickening, chronic bronchitis and various cancers. Of great concern to NUM was the fact that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had identified cement kilns as the third largest source of dioxin emissions, a carcinogen, and the second largest source of mercury emissions, a neurotoxin, in the atmosphere. I was glad to see NUM representatives agree that no workers should be exposed to such toxic pollution by such outrageous proposals. NUM has since shown their intent to inform workers of the situation and take action against these proposals.

There is a fear amongst civil society that if the SA government allows for the burning of hazardous waste in cement kilns that after SA the cement industry is going to ask for the burning of hazardous waste in other cement plants in Africa, or that the stockpiled waste from African countries is going to be exported and disposed of in cement kilns in SA. This would go against the objectives relating to the banning of and illegal international trafficking of chemicals in the SIACM process. No community should be used as a dumping ground for the hazardous waste of industries that are making profits and not dealing with their waste responsibly. There is a need to move away from waste disposal to waste management.

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