The Big Stink

Criminal charges pending in KZN waste management battle.

EnviroServ, the self-proclaimed “leader  in waste management solutions, delivering environmental peace of mind is facing criminal charges for contravening the National Air Quality Act, relating to its landfill at Shongweni in KwaZulu-Natal.

It also risks having its licence for the site suspended or revoked by the Department of Environmental Affairs.

In response, the company has accused the DEA of bias in its handling of its investigation into the landfill and of having “leaks” in the department that are feeding information to the media and the Upper Highway Air (UHA), a grassroots non-profit organisation established to demand accountability from the company. 

Bizarrely, the local office of the South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu) has also joined the fray, with the branch secretary telling Noseweek the landfill “does not smell at all” and that “those white people” complaining were doing so because of “a hidden agenda”. However at a national level, Satawu confirmed it is pursuing a multi-million-rand civil suit against the company on behalf of 33 of its members from other areas.

Meanwhile, EnviroServ is seeking an urgent interdict to gag an activist who launched a social media and email campaign targeting the multi-national’s investors, shareholders and other stakeholders. These include the British Chamber of Business, British Private Equity & Venture Capital Association, Barclays Bank, JP Morgan and South African banking associations.

EnviroServ says the campaign by London-based activist Jeremy Everitt has cost it serious investors “including but not limited to Rockwood Private Equity and Coller Capital”.

Everitt’s sister and nephew live in his Plantations Estate home, about 4km from the landfill. His attorney has called the attempts to gag her client a sideshow and a distraction from the bigger issue – the noxious odour that EnviroServ has admitted its landfill is emitting (“contributing to”).

While the case against Everitt could be deemed a sideshow, documents filed in the case by one of EnviroServ’s senior managers reveals that the founding affidavit of Esme Gombault, group technical director, at no stage mentioned that the company was under criminal and administrative investigation because of the site.

Noseweek readers are well acquainted with the contentious landfill and the alleged health problems residents have been experiencing which they attribute to exposure to “toxic” emissions from the site (noses199; 200; 203; 204; & 205).

EnviroServ’s chief executive Dean Thompson told Noseweek in February that their contribution to the bad odour was the result of changes to DEA regulations. “These changes have created a pH environment which promotes excessive growth of Sulphur Reducing Bacteria that produce hydrogen sulphide as an odorous emission.”

However EnviroServ has insisted all along that it is merely a contributor to the bad odour in the area. “Our independent air emission specialists have confirmed that Shongweni cannot be the only contributor,” said Thompson. His company had been treating the problem by correcting pH levels and “voluntarily reverting” to previous minimum standard requirements, among other measures agreed upon by the DEA. This treatment regime had resulted in an “immediate improvement,” he said.

EnviroServ continues to refute any evidence that the stench is causing ailments. “All data currently available indicates emission levels measured at the fence line of the Shongweni landfill site are below the health risk thresholds published by the World Health Organisation,” Thompson has said.

But the DEA’s deputy director-general for waste management, Mark Gordon, told Noseweek he did not believe EnviroServ’s explanation.

This led to a dressing-down from EnviroServ’s attorneys who have accused Gordon of making a decision to close the landfill or suspend its licence based on public sentiment instead of the company’s scientific analysis, conducted by “independent experts”.

Sources told Noseweek that EnviroServ has been “unashamedly aggressive” in its dealings with the department, saying, “They are bullies.”

Residents of Kloof, Dassenhoek, Hillcrest, KwaNdengezi, Shongweni, Assagay and surrounds have also laughed off Thompson’s claims that an immediate improvement in odour levels had been recorded. Those who spoke to Noseweek said the smell was “worse than ever” and that they continued to suffer nosebleeds and increased levels of sinusitis, bronchitis, asthma and pneumonia, among other complaints. The “What’s That Smell” Facebook group is awash with residents proclaiming the same.

“What’s That Smell” has ballooned to over 9,000 members since Noseweek first reported on the group. It details daily, personal experiences of the stink and suspected associated health complaints. Although the group is a closed one, EnviroServ is known to monitor it, and Gombault has referred to posts made about the company and staff members in her affidavits.

Last year, some community members on What’s That Smell were mistakenly (Noseweek assumes) copied into correspondence between EnviroServ managers, in which the company’s public affairs manager, Makgabo van Niekerk, referred to a complaining resident as writing “drunken” posts.

Nevertheless, the complaints continue to pour in.  In January, 11,748 were logged; in February, 12,840 and by 10 March, 10,311 residents had complained.

In February, over 2,000 community members marched through Hillcrest in a “toxic trek” to raise awareness. It worked. Since then, mainstream news publications have been lining up to tell their story.

But EnviroServ continues to hit back. In February, What’s That Smell posted photos of local children whose health had allegedly been affected by the stink. Some of the photos were also posted on the UHA’s Twitter account under the hashtag: OurChildrenHaveTheRightToBreathe CleanAir.

Four-year-old Rebecca Johnson from Plantations Estate in Shongweni was admitted to hospital with bronchial pneumonia last year. She was also one of the 12 children featured in the online poster depicting children from near and around the Shongweni landfill who had allegedly experienced health problems from the ‘toxic fumes’

In Gombault’s founding affidavit in the Everitt case, she claims in a paragraph relating to the post about the sick children: “The photographs of the distressed children are quite evidently not photographs of children who live in the impact area of the Shongweni site.” She questions whether Everitt or the group had obtained permission from the parents to use the photos.

Gombault went on to say that EnviroServ’s consulting doctor, Carlos de Nóbrega, had spoken to other doctors in the area and not one “has reported the incidents purportedly depicted in the photographs”.

“Had these photographs indeed been taken of children of local residents, the public outrage would have been all but unmanageable. Not a single complaint has been received by EnviroServ which might establish any connection between EnviroServ, the Shongweni site and the children depicted in the photographs,” says Gombault.

There was an outcry though, which EnviroServ would certainly have known about, given its monitoring of the group.

Noseweek can confirm that each child whose photo was posted does live near and around the landfill and consent was obtained from the parents to post the photos.

Noseweek has also seen information supplied by a children’s facility near the site, where complaints include headaches, migraines and nausea when the stink wafts their way. We have also seen affidavits from doctors in the area who believe many of the illnesses experienced by children and adults in the affected areas are a result of the bad smells.

The Green Scorpions are also in possession of these affidavits, and Noseweek was told they contributed substantially to criminal charges being filed against the company.

In March, the Independent on Saturday reported that a doctor in the area (who asked to remain anonymous) had himself experienced health issues from the emissions. “The only thing that will work is if the site is permanently closed down,” he said.

Four-year-old Aphelele Khanyeza from Molweni, a reserve near Crestholme, was taken to KwaDabeka Hospital in Claremont on 23 February as she was battling to breathe. She was one of the 12 children featured in an online poster depicting children from near and around the Shongweni landfill. EnviroServ has disputed the authenticity of the photos

UHA is still battling to get an inventory of the company’s waste streams and other documentation to find out exactly who has been dumping what at the site. Everitt, too, has been denied information that he deems necessary for his case. But Gombault has dismissed Everitt’s request for documentation as “a fishing expedition” and accused him of “participating in the communities’ assault on EnviroServ”.

Even some of EnviroServ’s own clients are sceptical of its claims of innocence or, in any event, find that the negative publicity the landfill has garnered is too close for comfort.

Spilltech, Hirsch Hillcrest and Amalgamated Beverage Industries have all stopped using the landfill. While Spilltech and Hirsch told Noseweek their reasons were related to the negative publicity and concern over the odour in the area, ABI said it was because of having recently reached a sweeter deal with another waste management company.

Gombault says in his court affidavit that EnviroServ CEO Thompson had been “threatened with abduction and assault”. The company refused to offer Noseweek proof of this or confirm whether a police case was opened against the alleged offender(s). It also declined to answer any other questions from Noseweek – with all correspondence having to go through its public relations company – citing “pending civil and criminal proceedings”.

Meanwhile tensions are running high in the affected communities, with some residents calling for a more confrontational approach and accusing UHA of not moving with the necessary speed or aggression. This has led to a small faction – the Envirovengers – taking it upon themselves to offload two barrels marked “toxic” in front of the site manager’s home, incensing the company.

EnviroServ’s timeline of events regarding the smell remains a bone of contention for the affected communities. While EnviroServ says it has never experienced anything similar at the site, Gombault in her affidavit, says that between 1992 and 2013, the company’s complaint register averaged one complaint per month.

But in 2006, residents in the vicinity of the landfill also accused the company of emitting noxious gases that caused “sinus, breathing problems and burning eyes”. EnviroServ was certainly aware of the problem then, as it made comments to the media at the time.

EnviroServ brought in its “independent  specialist”  Margot Saner  to address the community during the 2006 outcry. The Tribune reported: “Saner confirmed the increase in both pollution and complaints from residents, but said the report had ‘not found a marked increase’ in the health risk.”

Noseweek readers may recall that Saner’s company, GeoZone Environmental, conducted a series of tests in 2016 on behalf of EnviroServ after complaints from the public. But scientist Rico Euripidou and Goldman Environmental Prize recipient Desmond D’Sa called those results “junk science” because of the “flawed methodology” utilised.

Also in her replying affidavit Gombault said EnviroServ had admitted to gas emissions “contrary to what normally might be expected”.

“EnviroServ has admitted as much since at least April 2016 and has thereafter taken proactive steps in order to ameliorate the situation.”

However, in correspondence between this journalist and the company one month later, in May of 2016, Van Niekerk was still relaying information about a public meeting called by the company “…in an attempt to identify the likely source(s) of odours experienced in the area over the past few months.”

The outcome of that meeting was that the company “might be contributing” to the odour, but that there were other industries that had to be investigated as well. By July they finally admitted that their site was contributing to the odour, but continued to insist it was not the only contributor.

Gombault says in her December founding affidavit that the company had spent R10m since June 2016 on remedial measures. In her replying affidavit of 6 March, the figure had risen to R15m.

The same affidavit reveals that a Dr Johan Schoonraad conducted a waste assessment at the site and investigations into alternative solutions to address the odour. At no stage does Gombault reveal that Schoonraad is EnviroServ’s Technical Director for Treatment and Disposal Solutions. Instead, the perception created is that he is another of the company’s “independent specialists” or “independent private practitioners”. According to Gombault, the DEA has “unfettered access” to all of the specialists.

At the time of going to print, Satawu regional secretary Edward Mbina told Noseweek that a demonstration was to be held in Shongweni on 25 March to demand that the landfill remain open.

Mbina said that “investigations by the authorities” had concluded the landfill was in no way damaging the health of workers or community members.

When told that the criminal case against EnviroServ was only set to start in April, he again reiterated that the landfill was innocent of causing illness, insisting that it did not even produce a bad smell.

When told that many black community members had also complained of the stench, Mbina conceded he had not spoken to black residents living around the landfill. “I will be going to meet with them some time this month,” he said.

EnviroServ told Noseweek it was aware of the 25 March march but was in no way involved.

â–º Shortly after Noseweek went to press, we received the following comment from EnviroServ Group CEO Dean Thompson:
"We have always dealt with this matter with the seriousness it deserves and reiterate our commitment to find a solution.

"In July 2016 with SATAWU led by its Secretary General provided us with 27 medical records and six death certificates of its members alleging that the medical conditions they presented with, as well as the causes of death, were related to their work exposure during their previous employment by the company.

"On assessment by our Occupational Medical Advisor the alleged causal relationship could not be confirmed.  We also established that the six deceased persons were never employed by EnviroServ.

"Notwithstanding the above, we proposed to SATAWU that the 27 of its members (our former employees) whose records we had been provided with, be referred to the National Institute of Occupational Health for an independent medical examination.  A similar offer had been extended to some of the affected former employees in 2014 and only two people accepted the offer.  One of the two persons in question was medically examined by the institute for dermatitis, the results of which were negative, while the other was invited for a follow up examination which he failed to honour.

"Our offer to SATAWU stands."
























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