Fight for clean en­vi­ron­ment goes on

Op­por­tunis­tic in­dus­trial pol­luters con­tinue to ex­ploit weak govern­ment reg­u­la­tion, but de­ter­mined, or­gan­ised cit­i­zens have proved they can be stopped

The Mercury - - NEWS - Bobby Peek

AS SHONG­WENI res­i­dents and En­vi­roserv ap­pear in court to­day in the on­go­ing bat­tle over the com­pany’s land­fill site in the area, it is an op­por­tune time to re­flect on the waste gi­ant’s foul-smelling his­tory, es­pe­cially in KwaZu­luNatal.

The Shong­weni toxic dump­site has been closed for more than a year as a re­sult of com­mu­nity pres­sure, which forced govern­ment to act, but still, as you drive past on the N3, you are more than likely to smell the fumes of the dump­site drift­ing across.

Clearly there is still a prob­lem. They should not be al­lowed to re­open it.

The Shong­weni story has made head­lines in re­cent years, but it is not a new story. The story of com­mu­ni­ties, fed up with the health and so­cial im­pacts of liv­ing along­side toxic land­fill sites, and band­ing to­gether to take on the might of En­vi­roServ goes back more than two decades.

Just be­fore the dawn of democ­racy in 1994, Waste-tech, which En­vi­roServ bought in 1997, came un­der the spot­light as Um­lazi-based mem­bers of the Black Lawyers’ As­so­ci­a­tion started ask­ing ques­tions of the then KwaZulu govern­ment and the com­pany about why toxic waste was be­ing dumped in their residential area.

It was a bla­tant ex­am­ple of en­vi­ron­men­tal racism, where black peo­ple are forced to live with the im­pacts of toxic pol­lu­tion. Records of a meet­ing on Jan­uary 13, 1994, at­tended by the Black Lawyers’ As­so­ci­a­tion, Waste-tech, the KwaZulu govern­ment and others, re­flect govern­ment’s sup­port for the site.

Later, sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments were echoed in a let­ter from the IFP to the first demo­crat­i­cally elected en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter, Kader As­mal, with the site be­ing de­scribed as “a com­mu­nity as­set”.

And an­other record from the meet­ing re­flects the true na­ture of the toxic waste in­dus­try: “The waste man­age­ment in­dus­try can­not be stopped”, it is recorded, al­though it was not clear who the com­ment was at­trib­uted to.

Against this back­drop of high-level sup­port, Wastetech and En­vi­roServ con­tin­ued to op­er­ate with im­punity in Um­lazi, turn­ing a blind eye to the suf­fer­ing of res­i­dents liv­ing along­side their rank-smelling as­sets.

But by Fe­bru­ary 1997, the last Waste-tech toxic dump­site in Um­lazi had been closed, not be­cause the com­pany and govern­ment sud­denly came to their senses, but be­cause of the re­lent­less fight put up by Um­lazi res­i­dents and their neigh­bours in Isipingo, Went­worth, Mere­bank and the Bluff.

They joined forces, putting aside the racial, cul­tural and so­cial dif­fer­ences which had kept them apart for many decades, and forced As­mal to close the site.

It was not an easy chal­lenge to take on: it was a time of tur­moil; Um­lazi’s T-sec­tion was up in flames as the IFP and ANC con­flict was at its height, and peo­ple were dy­ing. Shacks were be­ing set alight when com­mu­nity mem­bers ac­com­pa­nied As­mal on a visit to the dump­site on June 29, 1995.

But it was no de­ter­rent for the band of cross-com­mu­nity cam­paign­ers de­ter­mined to rid their neigh­bour­hood of toxic waste dump­ing. Among those who stand out as the vic­tors in the anti-toxic dump­ing cam­paign, were the chil­dren of the Isipingo Se­condary School, whose class­rooms were down­wind of the site, on the bor­der of Um­lazi.

They took it upon them­selves to protest against Wastetech and As­mal for his in­ac­tion, de­spite agree­ing with the com­mu­nity on Au­gust 24, 1995, that the site should close.

Dur­ing one of the protests at the Waste-tech premises in Isipingo, the com­pany got its staff to counter protest, and stones were thrown at the chil­dren.

Waste-tech also claimed there would be job losses and the econ­omy would be af­fected if the site was closed.

Waste-tech, how­ever, was bought by En­vi­roServ, and jobs were not lost, and di­rec­tors in Waste-tech got a more than favourable set­tle­ment to re­tire on. The in­dus­try con­tin­ued.

At the time, En­vi­roServ also ac­quired Waste-tron, which owned the cur­rent Shong­weni dump­site, which was opened in 1992. Com­mu­nity cam­paign­ers from south Dur­ban who fought for the clo­sure of the Um­lazi sites, vis­ited the com­mu­nity in Shong­weni when it be­came known that the waste des­tined for Um­lazi would end up in their area.

It was sug­gested that this should not be ac­cepted and that peo­ple should protest.

The DA coun­cil­lors at the time in­di­cated that this was not the way the DA op­er­ated.

Fast for­ward 20 years later, and his­tory has re­peated it­self, as poor man­age­ment and gover­nance over­sight has led to peo­ple in KwaN­dengezi, Dassen­hoek and Hill­crest hav­ing to face the con­se­quences of this toxic waste legacy, which, as we have come to learn, has no bound­aries. Even the wealthy and com­fort­able, who es­caped the smog of the city for the green­ery of the hills, get it in the neck in the Up­per High­way area.

KwaZulu-Natal is not alone in feel­ing the im­pacts of poor toxic waste man­age­ment.

En­vi­roServ has had chal­lenges at their sites in Nel­son Man­dela Bay Mu­nic­i­pal­ity and Hol­fontein.

It is abun­dantly clear that toxic waste man­age­ment is an on­go­ing prob­lem in KZN and the rest of the coun­try. But, as past ex­pe­ri­ence has shown us, the waste in­dus­try can be stopped.

The south Dur­ban com­mu­nity has proved this, and now the west Dur­ban com­mu­nity and Up­per High­way Air is prov­ing this too. But this is not the so­lu­tion to our on­go­ing waste cri­sis in South Africa.

While the De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Af­fairs must be com­mended for re­spond­ing to com­mu­nity con­cerns over the Shong­weni site, they have to recog­nise that the chal­lenge coun­try­wide is as a re­sult of their fail­ure to force in­dus­tries to pro­duce cleaner prod­ucts, with less toxic waste.

The blame has to be laid at the doorstep of the govern­ment, which al­lows for these sit­u­a­tions to re­peat them­selves, lead­ing to waste com­pa­nies ex­ploit­ing weak gover­nance to make prof­its, and in­dus­tries that still want to do things dirty and on the cheap in­stead of in­vest­ing in cleaner tech­nol­ogy.

Turn­ing this around is the only way to stop this legacy of toxic waste from con­tin­u­ing into the next gen­er­a­tion.

The vic­to­ries of the past will be hol­low if En­vi­roServ is al­lowed to merge again with an­other waste com­pany and gets ac­cess to an­other site and con­tinue with dirty prac­tices.

For en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice to be de­liv­ered, the strug­gle has to con­tinue be­yond the courts. The govern­ment must be forced to de­liver on sec­tion 24 of our Bill of Rights, and this means forc­ing in­dus­tries to­ward cleaner pro­duc­tion and zero waste, so that we are not con­fronted with more Um­lazi and Shong­weni sit­u­a­tions in the fu­ture.

To this end, ground­Work will be host­ing a na­tional meet­ing of all peo­ple af­fected by toxic waste, which in­clude waste pick­ers, peo­ple liv­ing next to dump sites, toxic mines, in­cin­er­a­tors and Eskom coal ash dump­sites, to en­sure that these in­jus­tices do not con­tinue.

Peek is an en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice cam­paigner and the direc­tor of ground­Work, Friends of the Earth South Africa, which cam­paigned with com­mu­ni­ties in south Dur­ban for the clo­sure of the Um­lazi toxic dump­sites in the 1990s.

The Shong­weni toxic waste dump­site, which has been closed for more than a year after the sur­round­ing com­mu­nity put pres­sure on the govern­ment to take ac­tion. RIGHT: Com­mu­nity mem­bers protest out­side the Dur­ban High Court last year dur­ing the En­vi­roServ civil case ini­ti­ated by the Up­per High­way Air or­gan­i­sa­tion. The case is still be­fore court.

Iol.co.za/mer­cury TheMer­curySA Mer­cpic TheMer­curySA

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