THOR CHEMICALS TO BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE FOR POISONING WORKERS, COMMUNITY AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Pietermaritzburg, 12 March 2003 - Today the Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs, Rejoice Mabudafhasi, will personally hand over a directive to clean up to the management of the Thor Chemicals plant in Cato Ridge.

Thor Chemicals is notorious worldwide for giving mercury poisoning to its workers and for widespread mercury contamination of the surrounding land and streams. Thousands of tons of mercury waste were imported from the USA and European countries to the Thor Chemicals Cato Ridge plant during the 1980s and 1990s. Thor intended to recycle all this waste to reclaim the mercury, but the technology they installed to do so was ineffectual and inappropriate, and a decade later most of the mercury-contaminated waste is still being stored in leaking containers and sludge dams at the plant. Three workers have died and numerous others have been left ill from exposure to this waste. While affected workers have sought and found relief in British courts, the South African government and judiciary have yet to make Thor pay for the damage it has caused, and potentially will continue to cause.

Until now, that is.

Deputy Minister Mabudafhasi will, this afternoon, hand over a directive in terms of Section 28 (4) of the National Environmental Management Act. In terms of the directive, Thor Chemicals will have to take specific steps within a specific time period to properly and safely store the waste and to clean up any and all traces of mercury contamination in the surrounding environment. In terms of s28 (5) of the Act, should Thor Chemicals fail to execute this directive, the South African government can move in, and take over all clean up and rehabilitation, and then seek to recoup its costs from Thor Chemicals.

“This action by the Department of Environmental Affairs hopefully signals a new willingness within the SA government to hold polluting companies accountable for the damage they are causing to human lives and the environment in South Africa,” said Bobby Peek, director of the Pietermaritzburg based NGO groundWork.

“To date large corporations operating in South Africa have enjoyed impunity from prosecution for the harm they have caused to the health of their workers, the broader community and the environment,” he said.

Kenny Bruno of EarthRights International, USA, who campaigned to stop mercury exports from the U.S. to Thor in the early 1990's also heralded the Deputy Minister’s actions: "The dangerous mercury contamination at Thor arises from a classic case of transnational corporate malfeasance. If ever there were a case that cries out for government to step in and require action, this is it. The cleanup will protect health, protect the environment, and send a message that companies must abide by legal standards and the standards of basic decency," he said.

We must take steps to ensure that African soil is never again used as a dumping ground for the poisons that foreign industrialists want to get rid of," said Jim Puckett of the US-based Basel Action Network (BAN), an international toxic-trade watchdog organization. "To that end it is vital that, while the Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs calls on Thor to clean up their mess, she also takes the steps necessary to have South Africa ratify the Basel Ban Amendment[1] and the Bamako Convention[2] to prohibit such toxic waste exports to South Africa and prevent this type of environmental injustice from ever happening again."

“The Deputy Minister is to be congratulated for her personal commitment to sort out the Thor Chemicals fiasco,” Bobby Peek further stated. The Deputy Minister has made previous visits to the affected community living near Thor’s plant. She has also consulted with United States government (EPA) officials on environmentally sustainable options for dealing with Thor’s waste. Also under her leadership, health risk assessments and toxicological studies have been undertaken by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism to ascertain the extent of the damage.

During the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held in Sandton last year, South Africa was one of the few governments that recognised and called for international instruments to hold large corporations accountable for the negative impacts of their operations.

For more information contact Bobby Peek or Linda Ambler at groundWork on 033-3425662 or Linda on 082895 1943 or Bobby on 082 464 1383.

 

[1] The Basel Ban Amendment to the UN Basel Convention on the transboundary movements of hazardous wastes prohibits the export of hazardous wastes from OECD countries to non-OECD countries.

[2] The Bamako Convention is an African convention which seeks to prohibit the export of hazardous wastes to Africa.