Bill Does Not Guarantee Corporate Accountability

Cape Town, South Africa, 4 February 2004 - Over the next two days, community representatives living with hazardous industries in their neighbourhoods will be presenting their concerns on environmental injustices associated with air pollution to the National Portfolio Committee on Environment and Tourism. This is in response to the "National Air Quality Management Bill" that has been tabled in parliament.

The fact that this Bill is in front of Parliament is a testimony to the long term campaigning that people's organizations across South Africa have undertaken to challenge the South African government and industry locally, as well as in the international arena on a legacy of poor environmental governance.

Community representatives from Sasolburg, Secunda, Boipatong, Richards Bay, South Durban and Table View Cape Town will be testifying to the conditions they have to endure. In Sasolburg, local clinic records indicate that 40% [1] of all patients suffer from respiratory problems, and in south Durban the local leukaemia rate is estimated at 24 times higher than the national average. Learners at local schools in both Table View and south Durban have presented above average levels of respiratory problems. In south Durban respiratory problems affect 52% of learners [2] and in Table View 23.7% of learners reported asthma symptoms and 64.6% hay fever [3]. These conditions have been linked to the polluting oil refineries in the area, such as Shell, BP, Engen and Caltex.

Despite the harrowing statistics, the Bill does not make clear articulations on health, and more importantly does not call for the reduction of pollution as a key departure point.

Failure to protect health The question asked by people who have to face industrial pollution daily is; will our health improve with the proposed Bill? Long time residents in south Durban and Table View, Desmond D'Sa and Andy Birkenshaw respectively, raise concern that the bill does not address the improvement of health as a key objective. Repeated submissions on the Bill to the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) by the community group's legal representatives, the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) have raised concerns that health is not a key objective in the proposed legislation, yet it continues to be ignored. Health is not seen as a positive action, but rather as a "rear guard" action, i.e. to reduce health risk, rather than seek to improve health.

Based upon the following this Bill fails to deliver on the constitutional commitments with regard to protecting peoples' health. Air pollution standards are left to the discretion of the Minister Air pollution standards have been a rallying cry by civil society organisations in South Africa since before apartheid. Often South Africa is presented as a lawless society with regards to environmental governance for there are no air pollution standards. Failure to develop ambient and emission air standards will lead to companies continuing to pollute. It is left up to the Minister's discretion if he/she should choose to develop ambient or emission standards. Caroline Ntaopane and Octavia Nkosi who live in Sasolburg and Secunda respectively are shocked that the Bill is ambiguous about developing standards. "Sasol continues to get away with their pollution since government cannot hold them accountable for their emissions as there are no air pollution standards" says Octavia and Caroline who both live adjacent to Sasol plants.

Information is the key to successful governance Information has been a hotly contested terrain within environmental governance. It was only in 2000 when groundWork and various community organisations did public air samples with the Bucket Brigade that communities had access to information on industrial pollution within their neighbourhoods. Industry challenged the information gathering techniques, by doing their own sampling. Not surprisingly they found the same chemicals at even higher levels [1]. "The Minster must prescribe how measurements must be taken and information gathered, or else industry will continue to contest information," states Matshediso Tsotetsi, of the Boipatong Environmental Committee.

We cannot wait any longer - timeframes must be set The Bill is riddled with vagueness on when certain key actions will be taken to improve governance. There are no timeframes for the establishment of a framework for achieving the objective of the Act, setting of standards, the length of time a facility can hold a provisional license while not operating appropriately, and when licenses must be reviewed. In south Durban, community people have waited for four years for a monitoring system while pollution continues and companies are not held accountable. In KZN the Compass Waste managed Ixopo incinerator continues to operate without a permit. Unless timeframes are stipulated the Bill becomes meaningless.

Can the local authorities assume this responsibility? Local municipalities are under severe pressure to cope with the challenges of delivery. In areas such as Sasolburg and Richards Bay there are very few, if any, dedicated environmental staff to deal with the environmental challenges posed by the heavy polluting industry in the area. The result is that incidence like the two gassing by the Foskor Plant in Richards Bay goes unchallenged by local municipalities. There is no clear mechanism described as to how provinces will intervene if local municipalities cannot fulfil their function of licensing and/or monitoring. At a local level the power of big industry is evident. Edmond Skosana of Vuka Environment Dot Com, a civil society organisation challenging polluters in Richards Bay confirms that "local government is powerless in the face of huge multi-nationals and the Foskor gassings where people have been injured and lost their lives is testimony to this." In a large municipality such as Durban the eThekwini Mayor had to "reconsider legal" action after meeting Shell management.

Unless the Portfolio Committee in reviewing this Bill addresses the above issues, this Bill will fail to deliver environmental justice and corporate accountability to the citizens of the polluted neighbourhoods of South Africa. While the appearance of this Bill is a victory for the residents who have campaigned for so long, we must be careful not to "choke on the hidden fumes" of ambiguity within the Bill. We implore the Portfolio Committee to make the necessary changes.

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Footnotes:

[1] groundWork, 2002: National Report on Community-based Air Pollution Monitoring in South Africa.

[2] White, et al, 2003. A Study of Allergic Diseases and the Urban Environment in the Northern Communities of Cape Town, South Africa. University of Cape Town, SA

[3] Robbins, et al, 2002. The Settlers Primary School Health Study, Draft Final Report, produced by the University of Natal Faculty of Medicine, Durban Institute of Technology's Department of Environmental Health, University of Michigan (USA).