KwaZulu-Natal’s Last Health Care Waste Incinerator Closes

03 March 2006 - After a six year struggle between government and groundWork [1] over the poor operations of the Compass Waste operated health care waste [2] incinerator in the Ixopo (Ubuhlebezwe) Municipality, the incinerator has finally closed. This was after a government’s order to cease operations was issued in November 2005. The plant stopped operating on Tuesday, 28 February 2006.

As far back as 1999, groundWork actively engaged government officials at the provincial and national level to raise their concerns on the operations of the health care waste incinerator in Ixopo.

During the six-year struggle, groundWork did not only seek to get government to close the Ixopo waste incinerator but also engaged in a more broader strategic approach that resulted in the following: introduction of non-incineration technology to the province, training of state hospital staff in health care waste management, provision of strategic advice to the Department of Health as well as the Department of Agriculture and Environment in KwaZulu-Natal, making comments on policy processes and galvanising people nationally to call on the elimination of incineration [3]. As a result of groundWork’s intervention, the Department of Health in KwaZulu-Natal took a policy decision in 2002 to close all hospital incinerators in KwaZulu-Natal.

By 2002, due to government’s failure to take action to close the Ixopo incinerator, the only remedy left open to groundWork was legal intervention. In May 2002, the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) [4] served an interdict on government to stop the operations of the Ixopo incinerator. The respondents in the matter were: the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, the MEC for the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs (KZN), the Department of Environment and Tourism (DEAT) Chief Air Pollution Control Officer, the Ubuhlebezwe Municipality and Compass Waste Services. The interdict was based upon poor operations and maintenance of the incinerator. [5]

Through bureaucratic mismanagement, government did not respond to an application made by Compass Waste and the Ubuhlebezwe Municipality in connection with their permit renewal in 2001until 2003. Thus, the incinerator could not be closed, and it continued to operate without a permit until February 2005. In February 2005, the final provisional certificate granted them the opportunity to develop a waste management plan for the area (Ubuhlebezwe Municipality). This came as a result of a settlement reached during their appeal in terms of Air Pollution Prevention Act of 1965 against the DEAT’s decision not to grant them a further permit in 2003. The municipality was also using the incinerator for burning their domestic waste. However, this plan was not developed. In a visit to the incinerator in November 2005, the DEAT recognised serious flaws [6] in operation and issued a directive to cease operations using the new National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act section 35(2) and 51(1) to close the incinerator.

Bobby Peek, Director of groundWork, was relieved and proclaimed, “finally government sees what groundWork witnessed as far back as 2000. This is indeed a victory for civil society, nationally and globally. It is groundWork’s ambition to ensure that other provinces follow KwaZulu-Natal’s positive example.”

Ellen Nicol, legal representative of the LRC, stated: “It is encouraging that this matter could be brought to finality by officials who gave the necessary and serious consideration to the facts, the law and the science of incineration.”

For more information:

Bobby Peek – groundWork: 082 464 1383

Ellen Nicol – LRC: 072 697 3990

Footnotes:

[1] groundWork is an environmental justice organisation working focusing on air pollution, waste and corporate abuse and works with community organisations living adjacent to petro-chemical and waste facilities nationally (www.groundwork.org.za)

[2] Health care waste is often referred to as medical waste.

[3] http://www.groundwork.org.za/HCW%20and%20Incineration/Isipingo_declaration.asp

[4] The Legal Resources Centre is an independent, client-based, non-profit public interest law centre which uses law as an instrument of justice. It works for the development of a fully democratic society based on the principle of substantive equality, by providing legal services for the vulnerable and marginalised, including the poor, homeless, and landless people and communities of South Africa who suffer discrimination by reason of race, class, gender, disability or by reason of social, economic, and historical circumstances. (www.lrc.org.za)

[5] Based upon internal audit reports highlighting gross failings in the operational conditions based upon the first registration certificate of the incinerator groundWork highlighted the following:

[6] DEAT concerns (not exclusive) after visit to incinerator on the 17 November 2005:

o A strong offensive odour emanates from the site, noticeable from a distance of at least 500 metres from the site;

o Large amounts of incinerator ash have been dumped on the site, and, according to the log book, had been there for at least five weeks. The now expired certificate required incinerator ash to be landfilled at a registered H:h site “with immediate effect”;

o The incinerator ash was plainly incompletely combusted … indicating that the incinerator operates well below the temperature stipulated in the expired APPA certificate;

o Little effort was being made to sort the waste …;

o … temperature in the primary and secondary chambers were set below than the minimum specified in the certificate;

o The chamber to the incinerator itself was left open, and the operator was agitating the contents with a metal rod while the incinerator process was underway; etc.