groundWork (Friends of Earth South Africa)
Olifantsfontein community and surrounds

HAZARDOUS WASTE FACILITY UNDER INVESTIGATION BURNS DOWN

Olifantsfontein, South Africa, 13 September 2013 – Late last night, toxic and hazardous waste disposal and incineration company A-Thermal Retort Technologies (commonly known as Thermopower Process Technology), burnt to the ground. This comes almost five years after the company was charged and continues to be under investigation by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the Department of Environmental Affair’s (DEA) environmental management inspectorate, the Green Scorpions, for numerous contraventions relating to worker safety and community environmental health issues [1].

Fire fighters struggled to put out the flames which began at 18h00, allegedly as a result of a chemical explosion, although this cannot be confirmed. By about midnight, the building had been razed to the ground.

In November 2012, the court case against the company’s directors was postponed for the sixth time, leaving the communities of Olifantsfontein and Clayville frustrated as their health has continued to be seriously impacted upon as the company continued its operations [2]. A-Thermal has been previously linked to allegedly corrupt tenders and political affiliations involving senior members in government and the ANC, and it is likely that these political connections have enabled them to evade the justice system [3].

Surrounding communities and employees of Thermopower have been raising their concerns about improper practices at the Thermopower facility since 2006, which then resulted in the investigation and legal action by authorities. Olifantsfontein community leader, Kgomotso Modiselle, who was at the site last night, said:

“This is a great day for us. We have been fighting since 2006 to have this company shut down. We are pleased that God finally intervened in the environmental and social injustices visited upon the community of Clayville.”

Since A-Thermal was established in the area, members of the community have complained of odours so strong they do not venture outside or open their windows, and health impacts such as severe headaches, and eye and skin infections. Horrific accidents have occurred to workers on site, such as eyes being burnt out, genitalia and other bodily areas being mutilated from chemical leakages and explosions, and in some cases fatalities.

With the type of hazardous waste that was known to be processed and stored on the property, the blaze undoubtedly emitted large amounts of toxic air pollution and ash onto the surrounding communities.

Thermopower is the final destination for toxic waste from companies such as Eskom, Sasol, Afrox Gas and BASF to name a few, and waste from the South African Development Community (SADC).  While the NPA and the DEA are taking them to court, the KwaZulu Natal government ironically has agreed to treat part of the historical mercurial toxic waste from Thor Chemicals in Cato Ridge outside Durban to Thermopower for disposal [4]. 

Bobby Peek, Director of groundWork [5], and who has been campaigning against the Thor Chemicals for numerous years, said:

“This is a bittersweet victory. With this fire, the evidence of the company’s toxic legacy has now gone up in flames. It provides Thermopower an escape from the authorities being able to hold them liable and accountable for the contraventions have been facing in court. But at least now the community no longer has to deal with the immediate issue of being polluted.” 

FOOTNOTES
[1] Thermopower Process Technology has been charged by the NPA and DEA for the following contraventions: (1) untreated and treated waste remaining on the site for a period of longer than the permitted (three months); (2) failure to dispose of some of the residue as legally required; (3) burying residue in one of the buildings on site; (4) disposing of residue in storm water drains; (5) storing waste in leaking containers not properly labelled and sealed; (6) treating healthcare risk waste and general waste together; (7) not submitting charge papers to the authorities; (8) not ensuring either that all residue generated in the treatment process was disposed of at a permitted hazardous waste landfill site on a regular basis or reclassified for delisting and disposal at a permissible disposable landfill site; (9) and not taking steps to ensure all floors were cleaned and disinfected.
[2] Press release: 13 November 2012
[3] Thermopower’s CEO Christos Eleftheriades more recent political affiliations have been with former ANC Youth League leader, Julius Malema, who became empowerment partners in the Thumisano Waste Management Company. Eleftheriades’s company allegedly paid a monthly dividend of R136 000 into his partner’s company. Another of Eleftheriades’s Isibonelo Waste Solutions, won a R120 million contract over three years for the removal and treatment of medical waste in Mpumalanga, despite being taken to court. Around this time, Tshumisano had also been given a R200 million contract to remove and manage medical waste on behalf of the provincial health department in Limpopo.
For more information on old and new affiliations, read Mail and Guardian, “Waste company at centre of toxic storm” (25 July 2009) http://mg.co.za/article/2009-07-25-waste-company-at-centre-of-toxic-storm; City Press, “Malema linked to dirty firm” (18 July 2010) http://www.citypress.co.za/SouthAfrica/Malema-linked-to-dirty-firm-20100718; and The Sowetan, “Malema associate rakes it in despite lawsuit” (28 October 2011):
http://www.sowetanlive.co.za/news/2011/10/28/malema-associate-rakes-it-in-despite-lawsuit
[4] For more information on the Thor Chemicals toxic waste import scandal, read The Mercury, “Decades of waste not cleared up” (06 February 2012) http://www.iol.co.za/mercury/decades-of-toxic-waste-not-cleared-up-1.1227577
[5] groundWork is an environmental justice organisation working with community people from around South Africa and increasingly in Southern Africa on environmental justice and human rights issues focusing on Air Quality, Climate Justice and Energy, Waste and Environmental Health. groundWork is the South African member of Friends of the Earth International.

CONTACTS
Olifantsfontein:
Kgomotso Modiselle
Community leader
Mobile: 084 807 7121 / 081 017 9992

groundWork:
Megan Lewis
Media, Information and Publications Campaigner
Tel (w): 033 342 5662
Mobile: 083 450 5541
Email: megan@groundwork.org.za

Bobby Peek
Director
Mobile: 082 464 1383
Email: bobby@groundwork.org.za

Olifantsfontein community and surrounds
groundWork (Friends of the Earth South Africa)