Only when the wealthier nearby suburbs began complaining of “toxic air” and got lawyers involved did eThekwini Metro and the Department of Environmental Affairs and the company suspected of being responsible take notice.
Communities near a hazardous waste landfill in KwaZulu-Natal on the outskirts of eThekwini Metro have been fighting the government and searching for answers behind a range of health problems suffered by families in the neighbourhood.
Residents from Hillcrest, Shongweni, Assagay and the rural communities of Dassenhoek, kwaNdengezi told City Press that the lack of response from the provincial environment department pushed them to seek legal recourse in the form of class action.
Residents have logged complaints with the authorities, saying they have experienced health problems and that the stench has not subsided.
In November, more than 3900 complaints were logged. At least 700 new complaints were logged this month.
They believe that toxic emissions from EnviroServ’s Shongweni landfill are behind high rates of people suffering from asthma, bronchitis, nosebleeds and severe allergic reactions among residents.
The rural community in the same area also suspected the landfill to be responsible for inexplicable deaths of their livestock, claiming pollution from the dump was finding its way into drinking streams.
EnviroServ has denied any culpability for health issues. After months of denial, it only admitted that it may be a “contributor” to the malodour. It claimed to have spent R10 million to date searching to find the cause of the stench.
The sheer volume of complaints logged by community members in August – 300 in one week - led to the Green Scorpions launching a criminal investigation into the landfill, while also probing other possible sources of malodour in the area.
On October 21, EnviroServ was slapped with a compliance notice for its alleged failure to comply with the national waste and air quality acts, leading to suspension of all Type 1 (hazardous) waste being received at the site, among other conditions.
EnviroServ was legally entitled to object to the compliance notice and according to the department , the company formally requested that certain instruction contained in the notice be suspended until the objection process was completed.
“On November 21, EnviroServ formally submitted its objection to the compliance notice to the minister and both the suspension request and objection are currently being considered by the director general and minister respectively,” said the department’s chief director in communications, Albie Modise.
He said EnviroServ had provided proof of compliance in relation to “certain instructions” in the compliance notice.
In late October, the non-profit Upper Highway Air was registered; it is through this body that community members are working to urgently access information that they believe is needed to understand reasons behind their health problems.
Charmane Nel of Macgregor Erasmus Attorneys, representing Upper Highway Air pro bono, said correspondence has sent to Grant Walters, the department’s director in enforcement for environmental impact and pollution, and minister of environmental affairs, Edna Molewa in mid-November, requesting information.
Upper Highway Air has also applied through the Public Access to Information Act (PAIA) to access information about the pollution.
“Despite acknowledgement of receipt of the request, duly submitted in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act… we understand that no information has been received,” said Nel.
She said that an appeal would be made against any refusal of information and if necessary an application would be sought to compel the authorities to provide information.
Modise told City Press that the PAIA request was being processed. A response to the lawyer’s letter has also been drafted and was awaiting review and signature.
Nel said that in the same letter she asked the department to provide reasons why it was apparently not acting in accordance with the National Environmental Waste Act to take steps to suspend or withdraw EnviroServ’s licence, considering it had found EnviroServ to be non-compliant.
While acknowledgements of receipt had been received, no answers had been received, she said.
“If the evidence shows that these increased health impacts are the result of non-compliance or any lacunas in the legislation, success would obviously be to ensure the State takes the necessary action.
"If it does not, our clients will take the necessary steps to ensure the departments in fact fulfil their enforcement obligations and take any appropriate remedial action," Nel said.
EnviroServ chief executive , Dean Thompson, told City Press that the company had requested a meeting with the non-governmental organisation Upper Highway Air.
“No date has been set and the discussion is still between both parties’ lawyers,” he said.