groundWork is a non-profit environmental justice service and developmental organization working primarily in Southern Africa in the areas of Climate & Energy Justice, Coal, Environmental Health, Global Green and Healthy Hospitals, and Waste. groundWork is the South African member of Health Care Without Harm and Friends of the Earth International.


Member organisations of Friends of the Earth Africa condemn xenophobic attacks in South Africa

President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa

President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa

17 September 2019 - Member organisations of Friends of the Earth Africa in statement against xenophobia attacks in South Africa condemn the act as well as the South African government’s handling of the issue. They expressed solidarity with the men, women and all victims of the attacks.

Barely recovered from the cyclones in southern Africa, which are themselves an expression of climate change effects, specifically cyclones Idai and Kenneth that killed and displaced people in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and South Africa, we are witnessing today with pain and consternation the killings, beatings, and violence against women in Johannesburg and Pretoria, South Africa.

Once again, South Africans went to the streets to kill, steal and act violently against their African brothers and sisters. This is not the first time these kind of attacks on foreign nationals has happened. In 2008, there was a wave of attacks across the country against refugees and migrants – more than 60 people were reported to have been killed and thousands displaced.

Read the full statement here.

Deadly Mercury Injected into the Air: A very ‘convenient’ fire - Government’s failure means Thor Chemicals will never be held accountable

26th August 2019 - Democracy has failed workers and the environment as the warehouse storing all of Thor’s imported mercury toxic waste went up in flames yesterday morning, Sunday, 25th August. 

Thor Chemicals in collusion with the apartheid government imported thousands of tons of toxic waste contaminated with mercury to incinerate in Durban, South Africa. This was after Thor Chemicals closed their Margate (UK) plant when the British government threatened legal action because of over-exposure of workers to mercury and noncompliance with British environmental standards.   Thor Chemicals then exported their non-compliant Margate incinerator plant to South Africa to burn their imported waste. Thor went on to solicit and get paid to burn toxic mercury wastes from the USA and various European countries.  Along with the plant came thousands of tons of spent catalyst contaminated with mercury and other toxic organics such as arsenic.  At the time of the fire more than 3000 tons of toxic waste was warehoused at the Cato Ridge plant. (This is a fraction of the original amount of waste that was the subject of a commission of inquiry chaired by Judge Denis Davis, estimated to be around 10 000 at the time).

In 1993, the ANC, as a government in waiting took a deep interest in this worker and environmental justice case.  Soon to be President, Nelson Mandela visited Thor employee Engelbert Ngcobo, on his deathbed remarking on the injustice that poor people and those least responsible bear the highest burden of pollution, in this case paying the ultimate price because the workers were uninformed of the potential dangers of; and precautions to take against mercury poisoning.  Mandela established a Commission of Enquiry after 3 worker deaths to understand how the scandal came about and what governance action could be implemented to ensure a repeat of the incident was not possible.

Recently, Barbara Creecy, Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, has focused on the Thor Chemicals scandal and in early August stated that Thor Chemicals must pay for the clean-up.  This was after groundWork advising the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries officials over the last few years of possible treatment solutions globally.

“It is mysterious that the warehouses storing the imported toxic waste has now burnt down, just when Minister Creecy, as a new Minister has sought to challenge this.  This is indeed an early test for her tenure as Minister. Will she vigorously seek answers and hold the industry to account,” asks Bobby Peek, Director of groundWork.

It could be estimated that more than 30 tons of mercury has been lost or injected into the environment as a result of this fire. Mercury is an element and therefore cannot be created nor destroyed - this mercury will inevitably end up in the fish that we eat. The burnt mercury has been converted into gas which makes it easy to enter the human body through inhalation. Mercury is one of the chemicals that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified as toxic and deadly once released into the environment. At the doorstep of it all and now highly exposed is the community of KwaXimba which is ward 1 of the eThekwini Metro and the toxic waste will be deposited into the water of the Inanda dam, Durban’s water reservoir.

Read the full media release here.

Waste Pickers - A Decade of Successful Struggle

22 August 2019 - One hundred and thirteen (113) waste pickers from 42 towns across all provinces in South Africa convened in Kempton Park, Johannesburg, from the 19th - 22nd August for the 2019 Biennial General Meeting (BGM) of South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA).  We celebrated and reviewed a decade of work since the 2009 launch of SAWPA, a movement of and for all waste pickers working in South Africa. This BGM 2019, was preceded by BGMs in 2015 and and a gathering alongside the 2011 UN climate summit in Durban, South Africa. 

The BGM was not only about the review of the work over the last two years but also planning for the next two years. There were many victories that were shared and we are motivated to go back to our towns and communities, and continue our work towards providing solutions to waste challenges which many South African municipalities are failing to address. 

SAWPA is an organisation of more than 1100 registered waste pickers in all 9 provinces in South Africa. Many more of us work with SAWPA but are yet to be registered.  According to theCouncil for Scientific and Industrial Research there are up to 90 000 people that earn a livelihood through the informal waste sector.  SAWPA is based on waste dump sites and on streets in cities across the country, with all our members involved in collecting and selling waste as a livelihood strategy.  We divert and recycle materials such as organics, plastic, cardboard, paper, metals away from waste dumps, where good material becomes waste and result in increased greenhouse gas emissions and worsening impacts of climate change. 

Read the full media release here.

Waste Pickers Efforts Remain Key in a Dwindling Economy

20 August 2019 - SAWPA (South African Waste Pickers Association) [1] is hosting their 5th National Biennial General Meeting (BGM) celebrating 10 years of their worker justice struggle and unveiling the waste pickers integration guidelines for waste management at a local level. The meeting will elect new leadership for the next 2 years, and will plan and decide on the way forward for the waste picker movement in South Africa. The gathering will bring together 120 waste pickers, working in more than 70 municipalities. The waste pickers work on  waste landfill sites and on the streets.

Currently in South Africa there are 6 material recovery facilities - also known as recycling centres - in 5 municipalities operated by waste picker cooperatives. Various municipalities have been frequenting these projects to learn from them and there is a growing hope that one day each municipality in South Africa will have at least one material recovery facility where waste pickers not only earn their livelihoods, but they are able to lead and take control of these projects and support better waste management in South Africa. South Africa has a potential of creating a number of jobs while avoiding climate change gasses produced by waste on landfill sites. Research shows that recycling creates ten times more jobs per ton of waste compared to landfill and incineration. 

With the latest unemployment figures hitting a record high at 29%, formalizing the informal markets is one of the strategies that could go a long way in capping the unemployment crisis in the country.

Read the full media release here.

Mpumalanga SO2 pollution as bad as NO2, new study finds 

19 August 2019 - NASA satellites have found Mpumalanga to be a global hotspot for deadly sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions. A new study commissioned by Greenpeace India used NASA satellites to track anthropogenic sulfur dioxide (SO2) emission hotspots around the world. 

The study found that Mpumalanga, with its high concentration of coal-fired power stations, ranks as the second largest SO2 emission hotspot in the world. SO2 is a toxic pollutant that can result in lower respiratory infections, increased risk of stroke and increased risk of death from diabetes. SO2 emissions also contribute to the secondary formation of the dangerous pollutant called fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), which expert research shows is causally linked to a number of severe conditions, including lung cancer. 

Globally, power plants and industries burning coal and oil are responsible for two-thirds of the anthropogenic sulfur dioxide (SO2) emission hotspots tracked by NASA satellites. Oil refineries and metals smelters are the other major sources worldwide. This ranking of global SO2 emission hotspots demonstrates the need for stronger emission standards for coal power plants and industry and a rapid transition away from fossil fuels.

Read the full media release here.

Toxic mercury waste legacy from Thor Chemicals

02 August 2019 - For over 30 years, the sad legacy of South Africa’s ‘flagship’ toxic waste issue has remain unresolved as government has failed to adequately deal with it.

Since groundWork was founded, and more recently, we have supported and pushed government to find an environmentally sound solution that will result in the waste, effectively dumped in SA by Thor,  being treated safely and effectively. We have always maintained that the waste stockpiles can only be treated outside SA because we have never had the facilities to deal with mercury toxic waste locally.  This mercurial waste should never have come to South Africa in the first place and no other facility in the world at the time would take this toxic mercurial sludge. The toxic waste sludge is made up of a mixture of mercury sludge, arsenic and other organic compounds making it difficult to treat.

The remains of the dilapidated mercury-recycling plant at Thor Chemicals in Cato Ridge, where thousands of barrels of toxic mercury waste were piled up in a warehouse. Picture: Environmental Affairs Department 2012.

It is good news that government is now acting on the advice we gave them over the years. However, more importantly, the delay in dealing with this case highlights broader systemic failures by government and is indicative of a broader environmental governance failure in SA, an example being the failure of government to regulate air quality and those responsible for it (such as Eskom and Sasol) in polluted areas in SA. Failure to deal with environmental transgressions immediately cost us billions of rands each year in health costs and effectively will lead to more lasting, long-term environmental degradation detrimental to future societies.

Additionally, there were many workers and families who were affected by the Thor Chemicals operation and we believe they have never received a just and fair long-term settlement commensurate with the loss they suffered.

For further information contact groundWork Director, Bobby Peek on 082 464 1383 or bobby@groundwork.org.za

A coal mine tried to ‘SLAPP’ an environmental activist.

23 July 2019 - All charges against environmental activist Lucky Shabalala have been withdrawn. This is seen as a victory, not only for Shabalala but for all environmental groups and activists in the country.

Lately, it has become a common strategy for mining cooperates to bully and intimidate environmental activists with Strategic Law Against Public Participation (SLAPP suit) fighting for their constitutional rights, which provides for the right to live in an environment that is not harmful to health or wellbeing. 

The main objective of the SLAPP suit is not to pursue justice but to frustrate activists, burdening them with court proceedings and intimidating them with court appearances in order to discourage them from standing up against the corporate. 

Ikwezi coal mining company (Pty) Ltd, which has its mining operation in Dannhauser area of Newcastle in the KwaZulu-Natal province, instituted a legal action against Shabalala, with charges of intimidation and common assault. The court proceedings have been going on since March of this year, with the case postponed for further investigations. Shabalala was advised to get a lawyer to represent him but he had to seek assistance from outside since he did not have the financial means to afford a lawyer.

Read the full media release here.

Local Communities to Screen International Film on Environmental Racism - Mossville: When Great Trees Fall

18 July 2019 - Community organisations Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) and South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) are to host screenings of the documentary film Mossville: When Great Trees Fall. The film which will also be shown at the 40th anniversary of the Durban International Film Festival is a moving real-life story set in a town of Mossville in the United State about one man’s bravery against the bullying of the apartheid-born South African petrochemical giant Sasol.

The town of Mossville which was founded by former slaves and free people of colour was once a community rich in natural resources, local livelihoods and history, and a place where neighbours took care of one another and lived in harmony. Today, however, Mossville no longer resembles the town it once was. Surrounded by 14 petrochemical plants, Mossville is the future site of  South African-based chemical company Sasol’s newest plant – a $12.2 billion project and the largest in the western hemisphere.

At the center of it all is a man named Stacey Ryan. In the past ten years Stacey has lost both parents to cancer and seen the neighborhood he grew up in demolished to make way for Sasol’s new multi-billion dollar project. He experiences these changes from the view of his parent’s home in the middle of where the new Sasol facility is being built and he refuses to leave and abandon land that has been in his family for generations even when his power, water and sewage are all cut off, and his health continues to decline from ongoing chemical exposure. The film by Alexander Glustrom has won a number of international awards including the Kathleen Brown Edwards Award for Human Rights 2019.

Read the full media release here.

Supreme Court of Appeal closes another door on coal mine in Mpumalanga protected area

16 July 2019 - The judgment of the Pretoria High Court in favour of the civil society coalition defending a Mpumalanga Strategic Water Source Area has withstood a third attempt by mining company Atha Africa Ventures Pty Ltd to have it set aside.

On 9 July 2019, the President of the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) dismissed Atha's latest attempt to appeal the High Court's decision to set aside permissions for a new coal mine inside a declared protected environment.

Read the full media release here.

Waste-pickers - Can they develop a sustainable and decent livelihood?

11 July 2019 - South Africa's rate of unemployment is at 40% in terms of the expanded definition and job-losses due to company retrenchments are continuing. South Africa is also reputed to have the highest level of inequality in the world.

While the government has continued to fail to deliver on promises of job-creation, many unemployed people are creatively surviving and ensuring their own livelihoods while simultaneously contributing to a cleaner environment. One such group is the growing number of waste-pickers.

Listen to the Workers' World discussion on this topic with Musa Chamane - waste campaigner from Groundwork in Pietermaritzburg and Maditlhare Koena - Western Cape provincial co-ordinator for the South African Waste Pickers Association by clicking here.

Picture: Simon Waller for groundWork

Doubling SO2 pollution standards would have deadly consequences for Highveld communities

11 July 2019 - A new study has shown that the doubling of air pollution standards for sulphur dioxide (SO2), proposed by the previous Environment Minister Nomvula Mokonyane in May 2019, would cause thousands of deaths on the Highveld.

The study conducted by Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at Greenpeace Global Air Pollution Unit, shows that, over time, an estimated 3,300 premature deaths would be caused by doubling the SO2 standard, as a result of increased risk of lower respiratory infections, increased risk of stroke, and increased risk of death from diabetes – with approximately 1,000 of these premature deaths estimated in Gauteng. The studies also show profound health impacts on children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those already suffering from asthma, heart, and lung disease.

In October 2018, former Minister Mokonyane published the doubled SO2 minimum emission standard (MES) limit without having invited public comment, as the Air Quality Act requires. In April 2019, environmental justice group groundWork was forced to institute to set aside the unlawful notice. In May 2019, the Minister withdrew the unlawful notice and gave the public 30 days to comment on the same proposal to weaken the SO2 standard.

Last month, the Life After Coal Campaign (LAC), along with 4 community-based organisations, submitted detailed and comprehensive objections to the proposal.

From the outset, LAC and the community-based organisations have vigorously objected to the Department of Environmental Affairs’ proposal to weaken the MES limit for SO2, a highly toxic pollutant that is known to cause significant harm to human health and the environment.

This amendment would allow all coal-fired boilers to emit double their previously allowed SO2 pollution from 1 April 2020, including Eskom and Sasol, South Africa’s biggest emitters of SO2. Eskom’s coal-fired power stations and Sasol’s coal boilers are all located in South Africa’s air pollution priority areas - the Highveld Priority Area, the Vaal Triangle Airshed Priority Area, and the Waterberg-Bojanala Priority Area – declared as such due to the already-deadly levels of air pollution in these areas.

The LAC and its community-based partners argue that it would be plainly unlawful for government to weaken the MES, which were set more than 9 years ago to reduce the detrimental impacts caused by air pollutants such as SO2.

Doubling the already-lax SO2 MES, would make these approximately 10 times weaker than the equivalent standard in India and 28 times weaker than the equivalent standard in China. If the Department does weaken the limit, these organisations contend that this would be a clear violation of South Africa’s air quality laws and of the Constitution, making it unlawful and invalid.

Read the full media release here.

New Full Disclosure Report: How a broken regulatory system allows Mpumalanga coal mines to pollute water with impunity

03 July 2019 - A new report on the compliance of eight large coal mining operations in Mpumalanga, released by the Centre for Environmental Rights today, has uncovered many cases of significant non-compliance with water use licences – licences which are an essential requirement for the commencement of their mining activities.

The report, which forms part of the CER’s Full Disclosure series, reveals complete failure by the Department of Water & Sanitation to monitor compliance with water use licences for the eight coal mines and to take enforcement action where violations are patently obvious, painting a picture of a broken national department unable to fulfill its statutory mandate of water resource protection.

This is despite the fact that the Upper Olifants Catchment, where the eight coal mines are situated, has been identified by that department as one of South Africa’s most stressed catchment areas in relation to both water quantity and quality. Six of the eight companies assessed in CER’s new report collectively use around 8 million cubic metres of water per annum – equivalent to approximately 3195 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Coal mining is particularly harmful to water resources, with acid mine drainage from coal mines polluting surface and groundwater with acid, salts and metals. The Upper Olifants Catchment is characterised by a high density of active and abandoned coal mines, coal fired power stations and acid mine water discharge sites, resulting in severe degradation of water quality in the catchment.

Read the full CER media release here.

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