Deadly Mercury Injected into the Air: A very ‘convenient’ fire - Government’s failure means Thor Chemicals will never be held accountable

26th August 2019 - Democracy has failed workers and the environment as the warehouse storing all of Thor’s imported mercury toxic waste went up in flames yesterday morning, Sunday, 25th August. 

Thor Chemicals in collusion with the apartheid government imported thousands of tons of toxic waste contaminated with mercury to incinerate in Durban, South Africa. This was after Thor Chemicals closed their Margate (UK) plant when the British government threatened legal action because of over-exposure of workers to mercury and noncompliance with British environmental standards.   Thor Chemicals then exported their non-compliant Margate incinerator plant to South Africa to burn their imported waste. Thor went on to solicit and get paid to burn toxic mercury wastes from the USA and various European countries.  Along with the plant came thousands of tons of spent catalyst contaminated with mercury and other toxic organics such as arsenic.  At the time of the fire more than 3000 tons of toxic waste was warehoused at the Cato Ridge plant. (This is a fraction of the original amount of waste that was the subject of a commission of inquiry chaired by Judge Denis Davis, estimated to be around 10 000 at the time).

In 1993, the ANC, as a government in waiting took a deep interest in this worker and environmental justice case.  Soon to be President, Nelson Mandela visited Thor employee Engelbert Ngcobo, on his deathbed remarking on the injustice that poor people and those least responsible bear the highest burden of pollution, in this case paying the ultimate price because the workers were uninformed of the potential dangers of; and precautions to take against mercury poisoning.  Mandela established a Commission of Enquiry after 3 worker deaths to understand how the scandal came about and what governance action could be implemented to ensure a repeat of the incident was not possible.

Professor Dennis Davis, chair of the Commission stated government’s culpability in the toxic waste imports and found both the apartheid government and Thor complicit.  Government was to set up a system to treat the waste, and Thor would have to pay for the operation cost to treat the waste. However, some researchers who have investigated this case state that the company never intended to recycle the waste and were, instead, merely stockpiling it (with the intention of disposing of it via incineration). Many of the barrels were improperly stored and many were leaking by the time government revisited the site in the early 2000’s.

Recently, Barbara Creecy, Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, has focused on the Thor Chemicals scandal and in early August stated that Thor Chemicals must pay for the clean-up.  This was after groundWork advising the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries officials over the last few years of possible treatment solutions globally.

“It is mysterious that the warehouses storing the imported toxic waste has now burnt down, just when Minister Creecy, as a new Minister has sought to challenge this.  This is indeed an early test for her tenure as Minister. Will she vigorously seek answers and hold the industry to account,” asks Bobby Peek, Director of groundWork.

It could be estimated that more than 30 tons of mercury has been lost or injected into the environment as a result of this fire. Mercury is an element and therefore cannot be created nor destroyed - this mercury will inevitably end up in the fish that we eat. The burnt mercury has been converted into gas which makes it easy to enter the human body through inhalation. Mercury is one of the chemicals that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified as toxic and deadly once released into the environment. At the doorstep of it all and now highly exposed is the community of KwaXimba which is ward 1 of the eThekwini Metro and the toxic waste will be deposited into the water of the Inanda dam, Durban’s water reservoir.

Previously over 40 tons of the same toxic mercury-laden legacy waste from Thor chemicals was also conveniently burned and released into the environment in September 2013 when the Thermopower plant in Olifantsfontein burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances. The waste was intended for treatment at the Thermopower plant however the plant was incapable of dealing with the arsenic content, and in the end never fully investigated nor anyone ever held accountable for the environmental contamination.

As in the case of the Willowton Dusi River contamination in Pietermaritzburg, and the Safripol Fire in Wentworth, South Durban, over the last two weeks, groundWork demands that government, as part of the promise of Open Democracy, must make available all documents that has relevance to these incidents, including any emergency monitoring of air, ground and water pollution, or, more tellingly, if indeed government has not done this.

Negligence or deliberate environmental incidents of this nature have been the order of the day recently in South Africa. None of the Directors or company owners are criminally charged and this creates a bad precedent. This is a familiar and common narrative in our country, when a company is under scrutiny by the green scorpions or by environmental watchdogs, the plant may conveniently burst into flames, destroying evidence and transferring the problem to people and environment. 

We do not demand another commission of enquiry into the Thor Chemicals debacle, rather we call on President Ramaphosa and Minister Creecy to act with urgency and ensure that Thor Chemicals (which still exists internationally) is held accountable for the present fire and cleans up the decades old mess.  If the South African government is serious about worker and environmental justice they must act with urgency and meaning.

In 2008 Thor Chemicals renamed itself "Guernica Chemicals" in South Africa - a name universally associated with the eponymous painting by Pablo Picasso depicting the horrendous Nazi bombing of this Spanish town in 1937.

 

For more information Contact:

Bobby Peek, Director groundWork (bobby@groundwork.org.za)
+27 82 464 1383

Rico Euripidou, Environmental Health Campaigner, (rico@groundwork.org.za)
+27 83 519 3008

Tsepang Molefe, Media liaison (media@groundwork.org.za)
+27 74 405 1257