Deputy Minister Says No To Burning Hazardous Waste in South African Cement Kilns

groundWork has been working for more then three years now, trying to convince government that incinerating hazardous waste in cement kilns is not an option in waste management.  In April, groundWork held a cement kiln meeting with the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA – Port Elizabeth) and Earthlife Africa (Johannesburg branch) to formulate a collective strategy response of how to resist the practice of burning hazardous waste in cement kilns.

This debate came to a head at the first Conference of the Parties (COP1) of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), held in Punta del Este, Uruguay, 2nd to 6th May 2005. The Stockholm Convention is the first global, legally binding instrument aimed to protect human health and the environment by controlling production, use and disposal of toxic chemicals.

Two of these chemicals, dioxins and furans, will be created when hazardous waste is burnt in cement kilns.  African NGO’s intensively lobbied their government delegates at COP1. Of particular concern for the African groups were the approaches made to the South African government by the cement industry to incinerate hazardous waste in cement kilns.  These approaches have been made by Holcim Cement in the Northern Cape and in the North West province, as well as Natal Portland Cement (NPC) in Kwa Zulu-Natal (KZN). In KZN, government officials have requested NPC to burn agricultural waste in their cement kiln.  African delegates were concerned that if the cement industry is successful in South Africa, other African countries will be next on the cement industry’s agenda.

The African delegates distributed an African position paper on this issue to African governments using South Africa as a case in point, noting that major cement firms in South Africa were seeking permission to burn hazardous waste as an alternative fuel source.

The South African delegation (groundWork and Earthlife Africa) and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternative (GAIA[1]) met with the Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs, Rejoice Mabudafhasi. The Minister expressed concern that other African governments were questioning the SA government on the burning of hazardous waste in cement kilns as a result of the African position paper. The minister reassured us that the South African government would never allow for the burning of hazardous waste in cement kilns and would meet the obligations enshrined in the Stockholm Convention.

Peoples Action – Columbia says no!

The resistance to this practice is widespread. Holcim Cement in Columbia proposed to burn hazardous waste in their local plant in Nobsa, Boyaca.  As a result of intense local community protest against this, the Columbia Ministry of Environment rejected Holcim’s proposal. It is noteworthy that the Columbian Ministry took the concerns of communities into account. It is hoped that our government will follow suit since our National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) 1998, emphasizes that people’s needs must be put at the forefront when matters of environmental management are considered.

Keep the promise!

Prior to the COP, the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN), a network of civil society groups, held its General Assembly in Montevideo, from 29th April to 1st May. The aim of the assembly was to strategize and prioritise areas and issues of intervention at the COP for successful outcomes to eliminate POPs. “Keep the promise” was the rallying cry from the NGO’s. Priority issues included the continued use of DDT for malaria control, Best Available Techniques and Best Environmental Practices (BAT/BEP), guidelines to reduce releases of dioxins and the Basel Convention POPs Waste Guidelines and the identification of new POPs.

African countries were represented by Tanzania, Egypt, Senegal, Kenya, Mauritius, Gambia and South Africa to voice concerns regarding POPs issues. It was encouraging to observe a room of international social groups mobilizing together to voice their concerns legitimately.

During the general assembly, groundWork and Earthlife Africa delivered a paper detailing the experiences of civil society with regard to the National Implementation Plans (NIPs) and the African Stockpiles Program (ASP) in South Africa, and the fact that civil society was unsupported as an equitable stakeholder in this process. We were not surprised to hear from other groups about similar experiences were communities were being used as part of rubber-stamping procedures.

The IPEN assembly agreed for more strengthened global collaboration and local NGO action to improve efforts to eliminate POPs. IPEN also signed a communiqué with the Global Environmental Facility Small Grants Programme (GEF SGP) that will make it easier for IPEN participating organisations to apply for small grants on POPs issues. This would ensure that the goal of global POPs elimination can be realized much sooner.

One of the major successes of the meeting was the inclusion of four new chemicals in the treaty including pentabromodiphenyl ether (penta-BDE), lindane, chlordecone and hexabromobiphenyl. The COP established a POPs Review Committee from world regions to evaluate additional chemicals that could be added to the initial list of 12 POPs listed by the Convention. African State members in this Committee include Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Sierra Leone and South Africa. The Committee will meet at least once a year and is open to observer experts to be invited by the Committee.

Finally, it was encouraging for NGOs to hear the United Nations Environmental Protection (UNEP) acknowledge the role played by NGOs in focusing governments and the public on the need to tackle POPs. It is important that authorities see civil society as equitable stakeholders in decision-making processes who are able to inform and shape policies so that they meet the needs of citizens disproportionately burdened with hazardous toxins. It is hoped that our government will keep the promise to establish an effective, transparent, and participatory process for civil society to ensure effective implementation of NIP’s in future.

[1] GAIA is an expanding international alliance of individuals, non-governmental organization, community-based organizations, academics and others working to end the incineration of all forms of waste and to promote sustainable waste prevention and discard management practices. Since GAIA members are committed both to ending incineration and to promoting alternative safe, economical and just discard management systems, the name GAIA represents both a Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance and a Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.