SA’s synthetic-fuels producer has a lot to hide: illegal levels of toxic emissions into the atmosphere, a proposed move of its HQ to the United States – and secret plans to spread its toxic waste about, disguised as organic compost.
You try your level best to watch what you eat or feed your family, often willing to pay much more for a healthier option.
But how would you feel if that organic fruit and veg you hoped would keep the doctor away had been cultivated with “organic compost” deliberately contaminated with deadly poisons as a convenient way for Sasol to dispose of its toxic waste?
Sasol and its innovative coal-to-liquid fuel technology that kept the country on the road, so to speak, when apartheid made South Africa an international pariah, has for years been knowingly emitting highly toxic gases from its incinerators in Secunda and Sasolburg – in contravention of its emissions licence.
A Slate magazine feature on Sasol in 2006 called it the Exxon Mobil of South Africa, “though its annual sales of about $10 billion are around what Exxon Mobil does in about 10 days”. Journalist Daniel Gross wrote: “With 30,000 employees, including the largest number of PhDs of any company in the Southern Hemisphere, Sasol is one of South Africa’s largest employers. It produces about 38% of South Africa’s fuel needs and accounts for about 4.4% of the country’s GDP.”
Sasol’s business of converting coal and natural gas to liquid fuel uses German technology called the Fischer-Tropsch Process (FTP), a chemical reaction that converts solid coal into gas which, combined with hydrogen under high pressure and temperature, produces synthetic crude oil. A miracle of science, but – yes, now comes the inevitable but:
But in the process, large quantities of highly toxic waste are also produced in the form of a toxic "sludge" that needs to be safely disposed of – generally by incineration, which is not only costly but which simply transfers most toxins into the atmosphere, and still leaves some toxic ash which needs to be disposed of ... well, somewhere.
So, not surprisingly, Sasol’s environmental scientists at Secunda in Mpumalanga have since 2007 been secretly researching a number of potentially cheaper alternatives to incineration. Sasol would rather you did not get to know too much about at least one of the possibilities they've had in mind for some time: spreading their toxic waste about in "organic" compost.
The project is also a lot further down the line than they would have us believe.
Already early on, across town in Secunda, an employee of Lounic’s Timber World, 39-year-old Petrus Marthinus Swartz, registered a close corporation called Sola Fidei Manufacturing (SFM), of which he is the sole member.
Noseweek has established that, by 2010, he was in frequent contact with two Sasol managers at Research and Development – Wynand Kruger, Principal Safety, Health and Environment Practitioner (and in charge of the composting project) at ChemCity, Sasol’s enterprise development arm, and Dayanand Rajaram, a general manager at Sasol's Synfuels division.
Sola Fidei was given access to various chemical analyses of Sasol’s “bio-sludge” done by private laboratories, but commissioned and paid for by Sasol.
Then, since ChemCity is mandated to assist upcoming entrepreneurs, Sasol brains were applied to helping Swartz prepare a business proposal – to Sasol. In July 2012, using the data and assistance provided by Sasol, Swartz presented his “Commercial Proposal” aimed at helping Sasol use its toxic waste in “organic compost” that Sola Fidei would manufacture for Sasol at a cost of R4.24m a month.
In it Swartz declares: “A feasibility study was initiated to evaluate the viability of manufacturing organic compost from bio-sludge in an effort to develop a solution which is economically viable and environmentally compliant.”
Sola Fidei's feasibility study was in fact undertaken by staff at ChemCity.
The proposal is also based on a potentially misleading chemical analysis undertaken for Sasol by a company called Multi Disciplinary Plant And Soil Consulting (Pty) Ltd, whose directors are Dr Jacobus Arnoldus Janse van Vuuren and Professor Andries Stephanus Claassens. This company too was registered in 2010, around the time that Sasol and Sola Fidei stepped up their correspondence.
In his proposal, Swartz lists the two plant and soil scientists – Van Vuuren and Claassens – as part of his "team".
Claassens, however, told Noseweek that, although he had conducted numerous assignments for Sasol, he knew of no such person as Swartz and, as for Sola Fidei, “at no point was our company asked by that company to do any work for them”.
We can only conclude that, If anything, Swartz and the soil scientists are part of Sasol's "team" and are being used to create a supposedly independent front for Sasol's plans.
Responding to Noseweek's questioning of the project, the soil scientist said that if any toxic material were allowed into the compost, the State Registrar of Fertilizers (Maluta J Mudzunga) should be held responsible, not his laboratory. (Pass the buck, round one).
But in Sola Fidei's proposal, under “Final Product Classification” Swartz states: “The classification was acknowledged by Multi Disciplinary Plant And Soil Consultants, especially Dr Arrie Janse van Vuuren, who also consults to the Registrar for Fertilizers, Composts, Soil and Growth Enhancers, under Article 39.”
May one assume that the registrar is unlikely to question an application bearing the endorsement of scientists who regularly consult for his office?
When Noseweek pointed out the specific analysis quoted in Swartz’s proposal, Prof Claassens said he had conducted similar work for Sasol Synfuels – and not for anyone else.
Asked why the analysis only addressed the issue of heavy metals in passing – it concentrated on Selenium while ignoring a variety of other obvious toxins in Sasol’s bio-sludge – the professor said: “We only test for what the client has asked for; we couldn’t go beyond the requested tests. In this particular case, as plant and soil experts, we were asked to analyse and assess if the product (sludge) we had been provided with could be beneficial to plants.” (Besides all the toxins, the sludge is loaded with nitrates that are beneficial to plants.)
Claassens said his company was not responsible for collecting the samples that they analyse – the client does that. He conceded that his company would have no means of verifying the origin of the samples – which undermines the scientific credibility of the entire exercise.
Although Claassens was asked to analyse sludge supposedly from Sasol’s refineries, he said he had not tested for the hazardous elements that are routinely traced in bio-sludge – such as Arsenic, Vanadium, Thallium, Cadmium, Uranium, Barium, Mercury, Hexavalent Chromium, and Fluoride, among others, that could compromise public health if they entered the food chain. Sasol executives who had commissioned the analysis did not ask the scientists to test for these elements.
Swartz’s proposal was approved.
The compost would be used for:
► Fertilizer to grow bulking material for further compost manufacture (using “a waste stream of Sasol Nitro” to help cultivate bulking matter);
► “Land rehabilitation (Sasol mining); Ash dump rehabilitation (Synfuels); Fertilizer for all grass land around Sasol’s plants (Sasol Group); and Fertilizer for Sasol’s “eco parks”;
► Agricultural Fertilizer “for commercial farmers in Secunda” and “for small farmers in and around Secunda”.
The proposal was given the green light even though several scientists recorded their objections at technical alignment meetings.
In a secret recording of the first such meeting, on 2 August last year, at least two or three people present can be heard objecting to the composting project on the grounds of public safety. One is heard to cite a 1992 research report done for Sasol by Dr Willem Schultheiss of Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute in which hay that was cultivated using Sasol sludge was fed to livestock. The meeting breaks into laughter when the speaker says that the animals died of fluoride poisoning.
(When contacted by Noseweek, Schultheiss, no longer at Onderstepoort, said he was unable to comment on the research, as he had done it on contract for Sasol. “You will have to ask them about that,” he said. When Noseweek put it to him that all the animals had allegedly died, all he would say, was:
“Not quite”. Immediately after our call, Schultheiss called his friends at Sasol to warn them that Noseweek was on their case. He has reason to be nervous; see his damning report here.)
Regardless of the concerns expressed, managers at the meeting – identified as Lorraine Rota and Dayanand Rajaram – simply ignored the objectors and moved on to other business.
Noseweek has copies of documents proving that Sasol’s top management was aware of the toxicity of the sludge they were proposing to include in the “organic compost”.
Several routine laboratory tests conducted on waste samples collected over several months, both prior to and after the commissioned tests, clearly showed the presence of undesirable (but not legally impermissible) quantities, as well as dangerous levels of several other toxic elements besides selenium. Just Sasol’s Secunda operation produces this toxic bio-sludge at a rate of 27 tonnes an hour. This works out to 19,440 tonnes a month requiring disposal – a figure that keeps going up, according to another Sasol researcher’s 2007 report.
In that report, Sundika Ragoonandan, a water and environmental technologist attached to Sasol Research & Development, noted; “The estimated annual volume of sludge produced increased drastically from 4,000m³ in 2002 to 65,000m³ in 2006. The latest figure (2007) is estimated at 30,000m³.”
For decades, Sasol has incinerated its waste with a licence issued under the Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Act, No 45 of 1965 – and it was last renewed in 1999 by the Chief Air Pollution Control Officer. Come 2015, Sasol will have to comply with the subsequent, tightened, Act.
The licence (see here) clearly indicates the permitted concentrations of various hazardous substances, referred to as “particulates”, which have to be less than 120mg/Nm³.
But that’s not what Sasol has been releasing into the environment – particulates have been way over that limit.
In a 2010 memorandum, based on research by Mohapi Moreki, fellow scientists Blanche Ting, Maite Ruth Terblanche and their supervisor, Dr Karl Heinz Riedel, management were reminded of the terms of their incineration permit: “The fact that incinerators are approximately 30 years old has given rise to the following concerns:
► “Stack emissions exceed the legally permissible values. The incinerator plant is currently emitting an average of 550mg/Nm³ particulate matter into the atmosphere. This was calculated by averaging out the results of several isokinetic sampling tests. The current permissible limits allow a maximum of 120 mg/Nm³.”
► The report pointed out that the new Air Quality Act No 39 of 2004 which replaced the 1965 law, tightened various loopholes that polluters like Sasol had previously exploited. Ting and Terblanche noted that the new legislation requires an initial reduction in the limit to 50mg/Nm³ to be met within five years, to be further reduced to 10mg/Nm³, to be complied to within three years.
“This situation directly threatens the licence for the Secunda plant to operate,” the report said.
► “The effluent from the off-gas wet scrubber is thickened and produces a slurry, namely, Thickener Underflow. Current practice is to route the Thickener Underflow to the process water dams. The practice may be leading to contamination of the environment depending on the quality of the slurry.
► “The incinerator ash is currently being stored temporarily in a 90-day storage area. When a sufficient quantity has built up, it is collected and trucked to the Ash Heaps, where boiler and gasification ash is disposed of. The stored ash poses a health risk in that it creates dust during windy weather conditions, furthermore rain can result in mobilisation of heavy metals into the surrounding environment.”
Riedel, Ting and Terblanch’s memo said “heavy metal content is low in relation to the compulsory limits for preliminary sludge classification”. It was noted, however, that the concentrations of Antimony, Barium, Selenium and Vanadium in the centrifuged sludge were above the recommended limits for preliminary sludge classification.
Incinerating the sludge reduces volumes of waste, they said, and the ash can be used to make bricks. However, it is not only expensive but the ash has the “potential presence of metals, organic pollutants and dioxins in air emissions, residual ash and wastewater emanating from Air Pollution Control devices”.
The two scientists concluded, inter alia, that the bio-sludge was “hazardous, due to a high concentration of Selenium”; that “the incinerator ash has a waste risk profile of high hazard due to Arsenic leaching”; and that “the incinerator underflow is hazardous due to [the presence of] Arsenic and Selenium”.
If it’s well known that Sasol has been in breach of their toxins incineration permit, then why has the Department of Environment Affairs allowed them to continue with their poisonous ways?
Industry experts and several Sasol staff who spoke to Noseweek on condition of anonymity pointed to the fact that Sasol is responsible for between 35%-40% of the country’s crude oil needs. Therefore, shutting down incinerators, even for a month, would ground the entire operation and necessitate sourcing the equivalent quantity of crude oil from elsewhere.
But if Sasol's plant – SA’s single worst polluter – and the country’s second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases (21%) – is unofficially exempt from complying, it makes a mockery of the law.
Back to the “organic compost” alternative to incineration: after Prof Claassens dissociated himself and his company from Sola Fidei’s proposal, Noseweek tracked down the would-be compost-maker, Swartz.
He objected to Noseweek’s having spoken to Prof Claassens. “You had no right to contact him. He is a member of our team.” Asked how Claassens could be part of a team he said he had no knowledge of, Swartz demanded to know how or from whom at Sasol, we had got the copy of the proposal.
He ignored the question of whether his compost manufacturing plant would be based at Sasol’s Secunda refinery.
And “How much was the professor paid for his work?” proved such an offensive question that he put the phone down. Soon afterwards, several people called Noseweek seeking authentication about the journalist who had been making inquiries about “the Bio-Sludge for organic compost”.
The following day, January 29, there was a flurry of activity at Sasol offices (in Johannesburg and Secunda). Candice Odell, assistant technology manager responsible for the environment – the same person to whom Swartz’s proposal had been submitted – was the first to go on the defensive, sending out an email, “Important Communication” addressed to key staff involved in the bio-sludge scheme.
She warned them Noseweek had been contacting various people “who have knowledge of the EIBH [Environmental Improvement for Bio-sludge Handling] project – specifically with respect to the option where we are looking at composting of bio-sludge.”
Odell concluded her email by urging staff to refer all queries from Noseweek to herself or Martin Ginster, a specialist at Sasol on water and environment.
Two hours after that, an Alex Anderson sent Noseweek an email saying he “handled all things related to media” for Sasol and asked about our deadline.
An hour after sending us the email, Anderson was introducing himself to Sasol staff in an email: “By way of introduction, I’m the Group Media Manager at Group Communication… This particular journalist is resourceful... If you are contacted, you can simply refer them (sic) to myself.” He informed the staff that he had contacted Noseweek and asked about our deadline.
But that wasn’t all, an hour after Anderson’s memo, Sharon Mladina, Process Engineering Function Manager at Sasol, was dispatching warnings to the same staff.
She wrote: “We have been notified by Technology Management that some of our employees have been contacted by outside press associations to enquire on some of our projects/technologies.
“Please note, the protocol is to direct these requests to the Corporate Affairs group or the Technology Management functional representative… Not adhering to this and disseminating sensitive information to outside parties is a breach of your employment contract and can have serious repercussions.”
A crisis meeting – part of which was held remotely – was called to address Noseweek’s inquiries – at which it became clear that the management wasn’t too concerned about the “organic compost” story. They seemed to believe Noseweek was fishing around for information on even more damaging matters – presumed to be Sasol’s toxic emissions and the rumoured proposed move of Sasol’s headquarters from Joburg to Louisiana in the US.
It was subsequently decided that security of confidential information would be heightened and a communiqué was to be prepared for Anderson to send Noseweek to make us appreciate all the “great things” Sasol has done for the country.
Too late; Noseweek already had all the proof it needed outlining the various environmental violations. Calls to their scientists were simply to ask for comment on what we already knew they have been up to.
When Anderson’s prepared reaction came, it read quite well: “The report compiled by Sola Fidei on a Sasol Synfuels Sludge Composting evaluation currently in your possession is a proposal only and not the technical report, and is on only one part of a project that is currently in the pre-feasibility stage to establish the viability (technical, commercial and legal) of composting bio-sludge.
“It is important to note that this is a draft report and the final technical report, containing a full-spectrum analysis and updated proposal issued by Sola Fidei, contains significantly more information.
“Sasol’s relationship with Sola Fidei is through Sasol’s enterprise development division that focuses on supporting entrepreneurs in the chemical and related industries, while promoting development of new technologies.
“Sola Fidei was subject to various internal evaluation and governance processes before being selected as the suitable vendor for this phase of the project,” said Anderson.
Back to the officially approved proposal that Anderson decided to claim was a draft, the only toxin the experts seemed prepared to identify was Selenium (whose concentration – at between 180-400mg/kg – ludicrously exceeds the permitted 15mg/kg). To reduce the levels of Selenium, the project’s proposers recommend using more bulking matter.
But the amount required to dilute the mixture sufficiently would be massive – and that’s without factoring in all the other toxins, including deadly uranium, mercury and fluoride.
Sola Fidei didn’t have to bother about what it did not know about, so their solution was to get Sasol to allocate them “a minimum” of 3,000 hectares of local Sasol land for their bulking materials – land leased to commercial farmers who, Swartz proposed, be given two-years’ notice, after which they would hand it over to “Bio-Tech Farming, an affiliate of SFM (Sola)” to plant and grow the bulking material.
What may not have been made clear in the proposal is the fact that this Bio Tech Farming company is not just an affiliate of Sola It’s another briefcase company, Bio-Tech Farming Solution (Pty) Ltd registered last year, shortly before the proposal was sent to Sasol.
Bio-Tech lists Swartz as its sole director and its business address, the same as that listed for Swartz and Sola.
Sasol’s black ops against Greenpeace
For its campaign against emissions of dioxin and other pollutants in Lake Charles, Louisiana (to where it is rumoured, Sasol is planning to move its headquarters), Greenpeace found itself on the receiving end of Sasol’s dirty tricks.
In 2010, the environmental activists sued Dow Chemical and Sasol North America for corporate espionage.
Greenpeace had submitted that Sasol’s subsidiaries through hirelings – public relations firms, Ketchum and Dezenhall Resources and private security firm Beckett Brown International (BBI) – had “conspired to and did surveil, infiltrate and steal confidential information with the intention of pre-empting, blunting or thwarting” Greenpeace’s environmental campaigns.
Their accusations included trespassing on Greenpeace property, infiltrating its offices, meetings and electronic communications under false pretences and/or by force, and by these means, stealing confidential documents, data and trade secrets from Greenpeace.
BBI, a firm composed of former secret service agents and police officers, and the public relations firms expanded their espionage to Greenpeace’s office in Washington, DC after infiltrating their Louisiana operations. In DC, for two years, the operatives stole thousands of confidential documents and pursued other methods of intrusion and surveillance against Greenpeace and its staff.
The environmental group only got to know of Sasol’s activities in April 2009 when investigative journalist Jim Ridgeway, published a story in the magazine, Mother Jones, questioning why a private security firm spied on Greenpeace and other environmental outfits. Finding it initially unbelievable that they had been spied upon and their system hacked into, Greenpeace launched their own investigation and upon being satisfied the report was true, filed the law suit.
However, on September 9, 2011, Judge Rosemary Mayers Collyer, an appointee of George W Bush, dismissed Greenpeace’s court action, stating that the environmental organisation’s complaint failed to establish a direct connection between the alleged federal criminal acts and any injury Greenpeace could have suffered. She further wrote: “The racketeering counts would be dismissed for failure to state a claim.”
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