Stench warfare rages on


Residents around EnviroServ’s Shongweni landfill have accused environmental affairs minister Edna Molewa of stonewalling investigations into a toxic dump.

Vastly different communities in the Hillcrest/Shongweni area of KwaZulu-Natal have pledged solidarity in their drive to close down a toxic dump owned and operated by EnviroServ, one of the country’s self-proclaimed leaders in hazardous waste disposal.

The inland communities of Hillcrest, Dassenhoek, Shongweni, KwaNdengezi and surrounds, as well as people living in south Durban about 30km away, believe EnviroServ is mishandling toxic waste at the site to fatten its bottom line at the expense of community health. Since April, residents have complained of suffering nosebleeds, nausea, vomiting, sinusitis, bronchitis, asthma and other health-related issues. Those from the adjacent, mostly poor, rural areas of Shongweni, Dassenhoek, KwaNdengezi and surrounds say they have been experiencing the same or similar symptoms for up to 15 years.

EnviroServ CEO Dean Thompson has been accused of being 'insincere'

Their complaints have been lodged with the eThekwini authorities and the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) after residents asked renowned activist Desmond D’Sa for assistance. D’Sa has since been mobilising the affected communities to assert their Constitutional rights and fight for their health. In the process he has become a thorn in the side of EnviroServ, as well as local and national authorities. 

The plight of the residents has been well documented by Noseweek (noses199; 200; 203; 204).

After months of denying any responsibility, EnviroServ eventually accepted partial blame for the odours in the area. Sustained pressure from the community, activists, Noseweek and other media prompted the company to hire a second independent specialist to work alongside its long-standing specialist, GeoZone Environmental, to look into the noxious smells. Residents have said publicly they do not trust GeoZone’s methodology and results.

Activist and scientist, Rico Euripidou (see Why all the secrecy? below) has previously called GeoZone’s initial air quality results “junk science”.

EnviroServ CEO Dean Thompson said the “gaseous emissions” coming from the stored leachate at the landfill were a “contributor to the malodours” in the area. Leachate is the liquid that drains from a waste site; it generally contains elevated concentrations of undesirable material from the waste.

EnviroServ, has vehemently denied any culpability for residents’ health issues.

Goldman Environmental Prize recipient Desmond D'Sa

In August, the DEA received over 300 complaints in one week from residents of Hillcrest/Shongweni and surrounds, prompting it to formulate an agreed-upon, deadline-driven 11-point plan with EnviroServ. Some of those deadlines have since been extended by mutual agreement. The company says it is working flat-out to meet the targets and has made “good progress”. “We remain on track to meet our 11-point action plan as agreed with the DEA,” Thompson said in a press release.

“A scientific report by a specialist appointed by the community previously revealed that EnviroServ was not the sole source of the malodour as there are a number of other industries operating in the same area.

“Despite having existing air quality monitoring in place, EnviroServ will soon instal real-time air-quality monitors, which will allow the company to determine air quality immediately and as well as help identify other odour sources.

“The DEA has committed to investigate other potential contributors to the problem,” said Thompson.

Included in the 11 points was the “decanting and disposal off-site of all stored leachate and contaminated stormwater through the approved permit processes within ten weeks”.

(The Green Scorpions have since launched a criminal investigation into the landfill, which includes other industries in the area, while administrative enforcement is also underway. Should EnviroServ not comply with the administrative notices, they will have to endure a second criminal investigation for non-compliance.)

South Durban residents were thrown into the mix when it was learned that the DEA’s Deputy Director-General for chemicals and waste management, Mark Gordon, had authorised eThekwini’s senior manager at its pollution unit, Chris Fennemore, to grant a temporary permit to EnviroServ to dispose of the stored leachate and contaminated stormwater through the city’s Southern Wastewater Treatment Works. About 27 million litres of leachate and contaminated stormwater was to be pumped 4km out to sea, 60m below surface off the popular south Durban fishing spot, Cuttings Beach, in Merebank. This is a predominantly Indian and coloured area and one of the most polluted parts of Durban. A large portion of the population is made up of subsistence fishermen.

Environmental Affairs Deputy Director-General for chemicals and waste management Mark Gordon

The Merebank community demanded that the waste-to-sea agreement, which was to run from September to November, be terminated immediately.  Fennemore refused the request, claiming there was a “signed agreement” with a stamp of approval from the DEA, which legally allowed EnviroServ to dump its leachate into the ocean after being treated with hydrogen peroxide.

Residents and D’Sa have told Noseweek they believe the municipality’s Fennemore has been set up as a “fall guy” so that those who have “real authority”, like the DEA’s Gordon, are absolved of responsibility for their “incompetence”.

Fennemore denied this. But at a later meeting (at which Fennemore and Gordon were not present) another arm of the DEA, the Oceans and Coast Unit, told Merebank residents it had annulled the temporary permit, claiming it was illegal, thus stopping EnviroServ from pumping the leachate to sea. Gordon had initially confirmed he would attend the meeting but pulled out just hours beforehand “due to other urgent matters”.

“With regards to the existing leachate, we have advised the municipality to stop taking any more leachate from the Shongweni landfill, and we are waiting for feedback from the municipality that it has been stopped,” Natasha Pillay of the Oceans and Coast Unit told the meeting.

She said eThekwini was within its authority to issue permits according to local bylaws, but that the final effluent must meet the requirements of the licence issued by national government overseeing the marine environment.

EnviroServ and eThekwini Municipality have both stated that Enviro-Serv voluntarily stopped tankering leachate to the treatment works.

“No formal directive has been received by the City from [DEA] to cease the acceptance of leachate from Shongweni landfill,” said eThekwini’s communications head, Tozi Mthethwa, adding: “However, EnviroServ voluntarily stopped tankering leachate to the Southern Wastewater Treatment Works on 21 September 2016.”

EnviroServ CEO Thompson said: “EnviroServ, by its own accord, has temporarily suspended tankering of effluent to Southern Wastewater Treatment Works until such time as we are able to be assured of a consistency in standards.

“We informed eThekwini Water and Sanitation of our decision on 21 September 2016 after noting inconsistencies in samples.  EnviroServ is still in possession of a valid discharge permit as issued by eThekwini Water and Sanitation,” said Thompson.

Added to all of this is the municipality’s poor fines and penalty regime. EnviroServ received five R1,000 administrative fines between 2013 and this year for bylaw transgressions related to effluent disposal. Before each fine is issued, three warnings are given.

The Green Scorpions have also begun an investigation into the Southern Wastewater Treatment Works.

Residents from Hillcrest and south Durban have speculated publicly that the lack of action by the authorities to deal effectively with an issue that affects the health and wellbeing of communities over a 30km stretch is the result of political stonewalling. They have accused eThekwini’s political elite and Environment minister Edna Molewa of having buckled under political pressure because deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa’s brother Douglas was appointed to the EnviroServ board in April as a non-executive director.

The Green Scorpions’ Marie-Louise Lume denied any political interference in their investigation – whether related to Ramaphosa or any other political figure or party – at the last Merebank meeting.

Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa

D’Sa has written to eThekwini’s mayor, Zandile Gumede, and Environmental Affairs minister Edna Molewa, detailing the plight of the communities. He had received no reply from either at the time of going to print.

Community members complain that while all of this has been playing out, EnviroServ has been using “bullying” and “intimidation tactics”. In September, Thompson threatened D’Sa and Hillcrest resident and monitoring committee member Lauren Johnson with legal action due to negative publicity, loss of revenue, and for being part of an “orchestrated public campaign directed at coercing the DEA and other authorities into precipitous action without all the necessary and relevant information being gathered”.

D’Sa and Johnson were collecting affidavits from the affected communities when they received Thompson’s letter. To date, over 500 affidavits have been submitted to the Green Scorpions. Noseweek was told that testimonies from five local doctors are among the submissions.

In a leaflet handed out at one of the Merebank meetings – which Enviro-Serv did not attend – Thompson said: “At our last external audit by the DEA in May, the Shongweni landfill achieved an excellent result of 99.2%, which is only a minor non-compliance.”

But the DEA’s Grant Walters told the meeting that the department had not conducted an audit on the company in May. Asked to clarify, Thompson told Noseweek, through his PR company, “The audit earlier this year was an independent external compliance and environmental audit, done by Dr Dave Baldwin. “This audit is a requirement of our waste management licence issued by the DEA. En-Chem Consultants conducted the first audit of the fully-operational Shongweni leachate treatment plant, which included a site visit. Of the 67 auditable conditions only one was considered by the auditor to be only in partial compliance. None were found to be non-compliant. This resulted in the leachate treatment plant being rated 99.2% compliant with requirements of the Shongweni Storage, Recovery and Treatment (SRT) Licence.

“The most recent independent external landfill audit was conducted by En-Chem in September 2015 and that audit score was 99.1%.”

Residents from Hillcrest, Shongweni and surrounds have posted on social media that the smell and their illnesses have not abated since April. Residents told Noseweek the smell had in fact worsened, as had the adverse health conditions being experienced.

EnviroServ did not respond when asked if it felt the DEA and residents were unfairly targeting the company.

While initially willing to answer Noseweek’s questions, since 9 September the DEA has said it would no longer be providing comment while investigations are under way.

Minister Molewa accused Noseweek of using “ambush tactics” when contacted.

Gordon continues to be as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Why all the secrecy?

The 11-point plan agreed upon between the DEA and Enviro-Serv, specified that the company had to “immediately provide a detailed inventory of all waste accepted at the site over the past eight months including volume, tonnage, toxicity, flammability and chemical composition”. EnviroServ has refused to provide this inventory to monitoring committee members, affected residents, activists, Noseweek and other media. The inventory has been submitted to the DEA, which also refuse to release it.

After being pressed as to why EnviroServ wanted to keep the inventory secret, Thompson (through Enviro-Serv’s PR company) stated: “The inventory submissions to the DEA were intended for the authorities to evaluate what EnviroServ was accepting and its potential contribution to odours. This information is competitor-sensitive and as such, not for general distribution.” 

Rico Euripidou of environmental justice group, groundWork, told Noseweek that the company’s waste manifesto for the Shongweni landfill from May 2015 to April 2016 (a copy of which is in Noseweek’s possession), documented that the site had accepted waste that could contribute to or cause the malodours being experienced in the area.

The manifest lists quantities of waste such as inorganic liquid and sludge, waste oils, liquid and solid waste containing mercury, tarry and bituminous waste, sulphur containing waste, chemical and refractory waste and persistent organic pollutants (POP waste).

“That listing in itself doesn’t tell you much. The way it has been listed doesn’t give you a good enough clue about what is inside it and whether or not it can cause a smell. When it comes to things like waste oils, what waste oils are they?”

He said that the manifest should have listed all of the landfill’s incoming waste streams for odour potential.

POP waste (for example obsolete stockpiles of pesticides) should never be accepted at landfills, he said.

“It’s a no-brainer. POP waste has the potential to harm the environment and cause cancer. In March 2016, the Shongweni landfill accepted 59 tonnes of POP waste.”

It is important to know what the POP waste was made up of and where it came from, he said.

“Mercury waste should not be dumped into a landfill site. Mercury is an element, it is neither created nor destroyed, it is always there; it gets transformed. If it is pumped out to sea, it comes back to you in your shellfish. You can’t treat anything contaminated with mercury or lead with hydrogen peroxide and expect that it will go away. It doesn’t”.

D’Sa and community members have questioned whether the Shongweni landfill receives toxic waste from other countries.

“Absolutely no waste is accepted at Shongweni which originates from outside South Africa’s borders,” said Thompson. “The import of all waste into South Africa is subject to compliance with the requirements of the Basel Convention. About 0.1% of EnviroServ’s total waste is accepted from the SADC countries and this hazardous waste is disposed of at Holfontein in compliance with the site waste management licence requirements and in line with the applicable Basel permit. No waste is received via sea.”

Spinning it like a polluter

While EnviroServ claims “open and transparent” communication with its stakeholders, it has been consistently slapped down by residents and activists at public meetings for lying, deception and being unwilling to make critical information available.

Residents have also accused EnviroServ of skewing information by utilising long-time contractors who “do its bidding” in order to achieve results that favour the company. EnviroServ has denied this, but admits that some of its contractors have been working with the company for up to 20 years.

EnviroServ representatives also did not attend any of the Merebank meetings. Instead, at the 15 September meeting, copies of a letter on an EnviroServ letterhead, signed by CEO Dean Thompson, were distributed by what appeared to be someone plucked off the street.

In the letter, he claimed there were “literally hundreds” of industries using the treatment works to dispose of effluent, and that Shongweni’s landfill effluent “is just a small fraction of this”. The effluent had to meet “meticulous standards” set by the eThekwini municipality before disposal.

The company told Noseweek it did not attend the meetings because EnviroServ held its own “regular” monitoring committee meetings and members of the public were welcome to “apply to become members”.

At a fiery 1 September meeting, The DEA’s Mark Gordon said that all Monitoring Committee meetings were to be open to residents, the media and other interested and affected parties. A monitoring committee is a legal requirement.

The agreed 11-point plan required the submission of “a detailed and inclusive stakeholder engagement plan for the coordination and management of communication to all of the affected community and other stakeholders”.  

But at the MC meeting on 29 September, the last before Noseweek went to print, residents accused EnviroServ and their long-standing consultant Pravin Amar Singh of again trying to silence the community – as they had for the 1 September meeting – by sending invititaions and updates to select  people or deliberately giving short notice of meetings.

Some monitoring committee members, including Lauren Johnson, were not alerted to the meeting; and some had not received the minutes of the previous meeting. (Noseweek was not invited despite being on Singh’s mailing list and despite having been in regular contact with their PR firm.

Noseweek was sent a recording of the meeting – at which Singh said there might have been a problem with his emails. He said he also knew most of the residents were on social media groups and assumed they would find out about the meeting that way.

Johnson asked him why it had not been minuted that at the 1 September meeting, residents from Dassenhoek and KwaNdengezi said effluent from the landfill had flowed to streams in their areas and caused the death of livestock, or that a woman from Shongweni Clinic said that people in the area were dying, or that a four-year-old child in Assagay had died of an asthma attack, or that Mark Gordon had replied “No” when he was asked if EnviroServ was compliant.

Singh said those points would be noted in the next minutes and asked those present to approve the current set. They refused.

“Today’s minutes must record that there are dissenting voices, that a number of people have been left out of being invited to today’s meeting. We are not willing to pass the minutes now in this inaccurate form,” said D’Sa.

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