Centre for Environmental Rights
groundWork (Friends of the Earth South Africa)
Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance

VAAL ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE ALLIANCE’S STRUGGLE AGAINST ARCELORMITTAL SA GOES TO BLOEMFONTEIN

Bloemfontein, South Africa, 5 November 2014 – Tomorrow, the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein will hear why ArcelorMittal South Africa Ltd (Amsa) believes that it should not have to release records regarding the environmental impacts of its operations at Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging to community-based organisation the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) [1].

In September 2013, the South Gauteng High Court ordered Amsa to hand over records of Amsa’s Environmental Master Plan and Vaal Disposal Site to VEJA. Amsa is now appealing that High Court decision in the Supreme Court of Appeal. [1]

VEJA’s first request for information under the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000, made in 2011, was for a copy of Amsa’s Environmental Master Plan, compiled by the company in 2002, and setting out how it would rehabilitate pollution at its Vanderbijlpark site. In February 2012, VEJA also requested records relating to the closure and rehabilitation of the company’s Vaal Disposal Site, situated in Vereeniging, after the company had illegally dumped hazardous waste here [2].

The organisation made these requests - with legal representation from the Centre for Environmental Rights - on the premise that it is in the public interest, and more specifically, the interest of the Vaal community, to know what impact Amsa is causing to the environment and people’s health.

In his judgement handed down in September 2013, Acting Judge Carstensen stated:

The participation in environmental governance, the assessment of compliance, the motivation of the public, the mobilisation of public, the dissemination of information does not usurp the role of the State but constitutes a vital collaboration between the State and private entities in order to ensure achievement of constitutional objectives [3].

With these documents, VEJA and the communities it represents would better be able to ensure that Amsa carries out its obligations under the relevant legislation, including the National Environmental Management Act 107 of 1998 (NEMA), the National Environmental Management: Waste Act 59 of 2008, and the National Water Act 36 of 1998 [4].

Given Amsa’s history of acting with impunity towards its environmental obligations, VEJA’s concerns are well-founded. Not only have its operations in South Africa been less than exemplary, a report published in 2009 by a group of NGOs, including groundWork, Friends of the Earth Europe and CEE Bankwatch Network, highlights the multinational’s international status as a major polluter of people and their environment [5]:

During the last 15 years, ArcelorMittal’s predecessor companies, mainly Mittal Steel, have bought up several old and highly polluting steelmills and made them profitable, however environmental improvements other than those necessary to increase production efficiency have been painfully slow. As well as pollution, several groups have raised issues such as the repeated fatal mining accidents in Kazakhstan, which have been partly blamed on poor health and safety practices, and plans to build mega-steelmills in India, displacing tribal people from their land in a country where such processes have rarely if ever led to an improvement in the situation of those affected.

Amsa argues, amongst other things, that the public has no right to monitor activities of private bodies – like Amsa - to ensure their compliance with environmental law; and that private bodies owe the public no duty of transparency in relation to its activities that impact on the environment.  This is not correct.

The High Court judgement confirmed the right of fence-line communities to have access to environmental documents of corporate polluters, so that they can be in a stronger position to protect their constitutional rights to a safe and healthy environment. At the time, Robyn Hugo, Attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) [6] commented:

NEMA, other environmental legislation and international law provide that civil society has a critical role to play in environmental governance, including by monitoring pollution and compliance with environmental laws. With this judgement, the court has confirmed that organisations like VEJA are entitled to protect and exercise the right to a healthy environment by seeking information to enable them to assess environmental impacts, and to exercise a watchdog role.

 

FOOTNOTES
[1] The Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) is a voluntary association of non-governmental and community-based organisations that advocates for a healthy environment and sustainable development in “the Vaal Triangle”.  This is an area of heavy industry and mining in the south of Gauteng, in which two of ArcelorMittal’s major steel-plants are situated, namely its Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging sites. For background, also see:

[2] A full list of court papers related to this case is accessible here: http://cer.org.za/virtual-library/judgements/vaal-environmental-justice-alliance-v-company-secretary-arcelormittal-sa.
[3] Paragraph 18 of the judgement.
[4] See press release “Vaal environmental organisation takes Amsa to court for withholding records” issued on 31 May 2013 http://cer.org.za/news/media-release-vaal-environmental-organisation-takes-arcelormittal-south-africa-to-court-for-withholding-records
[5] See report “ArcelorMittal: Going nowhere slowly. A review of the global steel giant’s environmental and social impacts in 2008-2009” published in May 2009 http://bankwatch.org/sites/default/files/ArcelorMittal_Going_Nowhere.pdf
[6] The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) is a non-profit company and law clinic based in Cape Town, South Africa. The Centre was established in October 2009 by eight civil society organisations (CSOs) in South Africa’s environmental and environmental justice sector to provide legal and related support to environmental CSOs and communities. Its mission is to advance the realisation of environmental rights as guaranteed in the South African Constitution by providing support and legal representation to civil society organisations and communities who wish to protect their environmental rights, and by engaging in legal research, advocacy and litigation to achieve strategic change www.cer.org.za
[7] groundWork is an environmental justice organisation working with community people from around South Africa, and increasingly Southern Africa, on environmental justice and human rights issues focusing on Air Quality, Climate and Energy Justice, Waste and Environmental Health. groundWork is the South African member of Friends of the Earth International.


CONTACTS

Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance:
Samson Mokoena
Project Coordinator
Tel (w): +27 (0) 16 933 9079
Mobile: +27 (0) 84 291 8510

groundWork:
Bobby Peek
Director
Tel (w): +27 (0) 33 342 5662
Mobile: +27 (0) 82 464 1383
Email: bobby@groundwork.org.za

Megan Lewis
Media and Communications Officer
Tel (w): +27 (0) 33 342 5662
Mobile: +27 (0) 83 450 5541
Email: megan@groundwork.org.za

Centre for Environmental Rights:
Robyn Hugo
Attorney
Tel (w): +27 (0) 28 312 2746 
Mobile: +27 (0) 82 389 4357
Email rhugo@cer.org.za