18 August 2017

EnviroServ managers criminally charged – latest development in Shongweni landfill saga

Three EnviroServ managers appeared in the Durban magistrate's court on Thursday 17 August to face charges under the National Environmental Waste Management Act and the related Air Quality Act. The charges relate to their alleged mismanagement of the controversial Shongweni Landfill near Durban.

A fourth accused, the company's group technical specialist was excused from appearing at court due to illness.

Surrounding communities have been protesting over the past two years about the unbearable, noxious stench they say emanates from Enviroserve's waste management plant, causing many to become ill.

The four accused are coastal manager Clive Kidd, group technical director Esmé Gombault, chief executive officer Dean Thompson, and group technical specialist Dr Johan Schoonraad. They are charged in their personal capacities, and not as representatives of the company.

If found guilty, the accused could face fines of up to R10-million and/or imprisonment for up to ten years.

They are due to appear in court again on 17 November.

EnviroServ managers in the dock, from left to right, Clive Kidd, Esme Gombault and Dean Thompson

In May last year, Noseweek broke the story about communities near and around the landfill claiming they were experiencing multiple illnesses as a result of toxic fumes escaping from the massive dump. We have been following the story ever since (See noses 199; 200; 203; 204; 205; 210; 211; 212; 213).

EnviroServ earlier this year admitted that it was a “contributor” to the malodour in the area, but continues to vehemently deny that its contributions are in any way responsible for residents’ health issues. It claims there is a malicious and calculated campaign by the Upper Highway Air NPC to close down the site, which will lead to numerous job losses.

At previous court sessions residents from affected areas filled the courtroom, but on Thursday EnviroServ got the upper hand as about 80 staff members clad in green T-Shirts arrived well before proceedings commenced and filled the court benches.

After the brief appearance, which saw Kidd, Gombault and Thompson looking decidedly uncomfortable in the dock, the company’s Thabiso Taaka led the staff members in chants and toyi-toying outside the courthouse, shouting “Down with racism, down”. Noseweek also heard shouts of “Down with white people”, coming from the crowd.

Claims of racism have only recently appeared in the saga, with well-known environmental activist Desmond D’Sa and other residents of all races telling Noseweek that EnviroServ had shifted to using “the race card” as a “tactic” because of the weakness of its case.

According to D’Sa, it was not an uncommon “strategy” by waste companies whose operations affected rural areas with mostly black African residents.

The aim of the alleged racial campaign is to pit middle-class mostly white residents against unemployed or working-class mostly black residents in order for the company to get its preferred candidates on the landfill’s monitoring committee to maintain control of the information flow.

While residents from the mostly middle-class white communities being affected by the stench have only been visibly physically afflicted since about December 2015, the surrounding rural, mostly black communities and their livestock have had to live with the malodour and negative health effects for over a decade.

D’Sa and the Upper Highway NPC (which brought the civil case against EnviroServ) have received some flack for their opinions regarding the constitution of the monitoring committee, particularly from one Vincent Mkhize, who claims to be a long-serving monitoring committee member.

Noseweek could find no evidence that Mkhize was a member of the monitoring committee and EnviroServ refused to supply a list of monitoring committee members, citing concerns over releasing personal information.

Vincent Mkhize was present at court on Thursday and was seen sitting and marching with EnviroServ staff members. He also held up a placard stating: “I have been working at EnviroServ for 9 years and am still here, healthy and alive!!!”

At the last monitoring committee meeting held on 28 June, Vincent and Dumisani Mkhize (Vincent told Noseweek Dumisani is his younger brother – he was also present at court on Thursday) delayed the process to vote in a new chairman and amend the terms of reference, with Dumisani being particularly vociferous, saying he represented all affected black communities but also stating they were not adequately represented.

Alleged monitoring committee member Vincent Mkhize (centre) with other EnviroServ supporters

Last week, Vincent Mkhize sent an email to D’Sa and copied in numerous government officials, EnviroServ’s top management and some other affected and interested parties.

Said the letter:
“Dear Mr. Des,
You don’t live in our area but you come [and] cause chaos in every meeting with your people from Hillcrest. You were at the meeting where the African community told the meeting we are being left out. But you want to argue in your emails. You must listen. All our organisations signed nomination forms but you and your friends want to be smart. You are not part of the monitoring committee. We have been there since 2010, and have not seen you. Public meeting with drunk people is not how we work on any committee. We are close to the site and affected, but every meeting you and upper highway disrupt. You don’t respect African communities. Why? You live in Merebank, not in Shongweni. We have chiefs and indunas to respect here. You are not accountable to anybody so you do anything. You and your troublemaker friends are not welcome in our communities. You are only interested in getting into the papers to become famous just for making chaos.”

The “disruptions” Mkhize refers to have taken place at monitoring committee meetings this year where D’Sa and some community members have insisted that EnviroServ’s long-time contractor, Pravin Amar Singh, who has been chairing the meetings for close on 20 years, be replaced with a democratically elected chair.

Some of those community members, led by D’Sa and the Upper Highway Air NPC, have also called for amendments to the monitoring committee’s original terms of reference to include broader voting rights for all communities affected by the malodour.

EnviroServ, however, took it upon itself to amend the terms of reference without consulting interested and affected parties. Not surprisingly, the new terms work in the company’s favour concerning voting rights, disclosure and transparency.

Taaka on Thursday denied EnviroServ had done any “direct” business with Vincent or his environmental NPO, Siyathutuka Environment Development, which was established in April this year. Taaka said EnviroServ tried to work with all NPOs in the area to educate and assist community members.

Vincent’s claim to being part of the monitoring committee for several years is disconcerting as “black” community members contend they have been subjected to the malodour and ill health from the odour for over a decade. When Noseweek asked Vincent about this on Thursday, he said he knew of the claims because he lived in the area. He then laughed and walked away.

EnviroServ earlier this year admitted that it was a “contributor” to the malodour in the area, but continues to vehemently deny that its contributions are in any way responsible for residents’ health issues. It claims there is a malicious and calculated campaign by D’Sa and the Upper Highway Air NPC to close down the site, which will lead to numerous job losses.

In April, the Upper Highway Air NPC was granted an urgent interdict against EnviroServ, stopping the company from “accepting, treating or disposing of” any new waste at the Shongweni landfill. That still stands.

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