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2019 NEWS AND PRESS RELEASES

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Member organisations of Friends of the Earth Africa condemn xenophobic attacks in South Africa

President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa

President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa

17 September 2019 - Member organisations of Friends of the Earth Africa in statement against xenophobia attacks in South Africa condemn the act as well as the South African government’s handling of the issue. They expressed solidarity with the men, women and all victims of the attacks.

Barely recovered from the cyclones in southern Africa, which are themselves an expression of climate change effects, specifically cyclones Idai and Kenneth that killed and displaced people in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and South Africa, we are witnessing today with pain and consternation the killings, beatings, and violence against women in Johannesburg and Pretoria, South Africa.

Once again, South Africans went to the streets to kill, steal and act violently against their African brothers and sisters. This is not the first time these kind of attacks on foreign nationals has happened. In 2008, there was a wave of attacks across the country against refugees and migrants – more than 60 people were reported to have been killed and thousands displaced.

Read the full statement here.

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.

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.

Read the full media release here.

Waste Pickers - A Decade of Successful Struggle

22 August 2019 - One hundred and thirteen (113) waste pickers from 42 towns across all provinces in South Africa convened in Kempton Park, Johannesburg, from the 19th - 22nd August for the 2019 Biennial General Meeting (BGM) of South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA).  We celebrated and reviewed a decade of work since the 2009 launch of SAWPA, a movement of and for all waste pickers working in South Africa. This BGM 2019, was preceded by BGMs in 2015 and and a gathering alongside the 2011 UN climate summit in Durban, South Africa. 

The BGM was not only about the review of the work over the last two years but also planning for the next two years. There were many victories that were shared and we are motivated to go back to our towns and communities, and continue our work towards providing solutions to waste challenges which many South African municipalities are failing to address. 

SAWPA is an organisation of more than 1100 registered waste pickers in all 9 provinces in South Africa. Many more of us work with SAWPA but are yet to be registered.  According to theCouncil for Scientific and Industrial Research there are up to 90 000 people that earn a livelihood through the informal waste sector.  SAWPA is based on waste dump sites and on streets in cities across the country, with all our members involved in collecting and selling waste as a livelihood strategy.  We divert and recycle materials such as organics, plastic, cardboard, paper, metals away from waste dumps, where good material becomes waste and result in increased greenhouse gas emissions and worsening impacts of climate change. 

Read the full media release here.

Waste Pickers Efforts Remain Key in a Dwindling Economy

20 August 2019 - SAWPA (South African Waste Pickers Association) [1] is hosting their 5th National Biennial General Meeting (BGM) celebrating 10 years of their worker justice struggle and unveiling the waste pickers integration guidelines for waste management at a local level. The meeting will elect new leadership for the next 2 years, and will plan and decide on the way forward for the waste picker movement in South Africa. The gathering will bring together 120 waste pickers, working in more than 70 municipalities. The waste pickers work on  waste landfill sites and on the streets.

Currently in South Africa there are 6 material recovery facilities - also known as recycling centres - in 5 municipalities operated by waste picker cooperatives. Various municipalities have been frequenting these projects to learn from them and there is a growing hope that one day each municipality in South Africa will have at least one material recovery facility where waste pickers not only earn their livelihoods, but they are able to lead and take control of these projects and support better waste management in South Africa. South Africa has a potential of creating a number of jobs while avoiding climate change gasses produced by waste on landfill sites. Research shows that recycling creates ten times more jobs per ton of waste compared to landfill and incineration. 

With the latest unemployment figures hitting a record high at 29%, formalizing the informal markets is one of the strategies that could go a long way in capping the unemployment crisis in the country.

Read the full media release here.

Mpumalanga SO2 pollution as bad as NO2, new study finds 

19 August 2019 - NASA satellites have found Mpumalanga to be a global hotspot for deadly sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions. A new study commissioned by Greenpeace India used NASA satellites to track anthropogenic sulfur dioxide (SO2) emission hotspots around the world. 

The study found that Mpumalanga, with its high concentration of coal-fired power stations, ranks as the second largest SO2 emission hotspot in the world. SO2 is a toxic pollutant that can result in lower respiratory infections, increased risk of stroke and increased risk of death from diabetes. SO2 emissions also contribute to the secondary formation of the dangerous pollutant called fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), which expert research shows is causally linked to a number of severe conditions, including lung cancer. 

Globally, power plants and industries burning coal and oil are responsible for two-thirds of the anthropogenic sulfur dioxide (SO2) emission hotspots tracked by NASA satellites. Oil refineries and metals smelters are the other major sources worldwide. This ranking of global SO2 emission hotspots demonstrates the need for stronger emission standards for coal power plants and industry and a rapid transition away from fossil fuels.

Read the full media release here.

Toxic mercury waste legacy from Thor Chemicals

02 August 2019 - For over 30 years, the sad legacy of South Africa’s ‘flagship’ toxic waste issue has remain unresolved as government has failed to adequately deal with it.

Since groundWork was founded, and more recently, we have supported and pushed government to find an environmentally sound solution that will result in the waste, effectively dumped in SA by Thor,  being treated safely and effectively. We have always maintained that the waste stockpiles can only be treated outside SA because we have never had the facilities to deal with mercury toxic waste locally.  This mercurial waste should never have come to South Africa in the first place and no other facility in the world at the time would take this toxic mercurial sludge. The toxic waste sludge is made up of a mixture of mercury sludge, arsenic and other organic compounds making it difficult to treat.

The remains of the dilapidated mercury-recycling plant at Thor Chemicals in Cato Ridge, where thousands of barrels of toxic mercury waste were piled up in a warehouse. Picture: Environmental Affairs Department 2012.

It is good news that government is now acting on the advice we gave them over the years. However, more importantly, the delay in dealing with this case highlights broader systemic failures by government and is indicative of a broader environmental governance failure in SA, an example being the failure of government to regulate air quality and those responsible for it (such as Eskom and Sasol) in polluted areas in SA. Failure to deal with environmental transgressions immediately cost us billions of rands each year in health costs and effectively will lead to more lasting, long-term environmental degradation detrimental to future societies.

Additionally, there were many workers and families who were affected by the Thor Chemicals operation and we believe they have never received a just and fair long-term settlement commensurate with the loss they suffered.

For further information contact groundWork Director, Bobby Peek on 082 464 1383 or bobby@groundwork.org.za

A coal mine tried to ‘SLAPP’ an environmental activist.

23 July 2019 - All charges against environmental activist Lucky Shabalala have been withdrawn. This is seen as a victory, not only for Shabalala but for all environmental groups and activists in the country.

Lately, it has become a common strategy for mining cooperates to bully and intimidate environmental activists with Strategic Law Against Public Participation (SLAPP suit) fighting for their constitutional rights, which provides for the right to live in an environment that is not harmful to health or wellbeing. 

The main objective of the SLAPP suit is not to pursue justice but to frustrate activists, burdening them with court proceedings and intimidating them with court appearances in order to discourage them from standing up against the corporate. 

Ikwezi coal mining company (Pty) Ltd, which has its mining operation in Dannhauser area of Newcastle in the KwaZulu-Natal province, instituted a legal action against Shabalala, with charges of intimidation and common assault. The court proceedings have been going on since March of this year, with the case postponed for further investigations. Shabalala was advised to get a lawyer to represent him but he had to seek assistance from outside since he did not have the financial means to afford a lawyer.

Read the full media release here.

Local Communities to Screen International Film on Environmental Racism - Mossville: When Great Trees Fall

18 July 2019 - Community organisations Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) and South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) are to host screenings of the documentary film Mossville: When Great Trees Fall. The film which will also be shown at the 40th anniversary of the Durban International Film Festival is a moving real-life story set in a town of Mossville in the United State about one man’s bravery against the bullying of the apartheid-born South African petrochemical giant Sasol.

The town of Mossville which was founded by former slaves and free people of colour was once a community rich in natural resources, local livelihoods and history, and a place where neighbours took care of one another and lived in harmony. Today, however, Mossville no longer resembles the town it once was. Surrounded by 14 petrochemical plants, Mossville is the future site of  South African-based chemical company Sasol’s newest plant – a $12.2 billion project and the largest in the western hemisphere.

At the center of it all is a man named Stacey Ryan. In the past ten years Stacey has lost both parents to cancer and seen the neighborhood he grew up in demolished to make way for Sasol’s new multi-billion dollar project. He experiences these changes from the view of his parent’s home in the middle of where the new Sasol facility is being built and he refuses to leave and abandon land that has been in his family for generations even when his power, water and sewage are all cut off, and his health continues to decline from ongoing chemical exposure. The film by Alexander Glustrom has won a number of international awards including the Kathleen Brown Edwards Award for Human Rights 2019.

Read the full media release here.

Supreme Court of Appeal closes another door on coal mine in Mpumalanga protected area

16 July 2019 - The judgment of the Pretoria High Court in favour of the civil society coalition defending a Mpumalanga Strategic Water Source Area has withstood a third attempt by mining company Atha Africa Ventures Pty Ltd to have it set aside.

On 9 July 2019, the President of the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) dismissed Atha's latest attempt to appeal the High Court's decision to set aside permissions for a new coal mine inside a declared protected environment.

Read the full media release here.

Waste-pickers - Can they develop a sustainable and decent livelihood?

11 July 2019 - South Africa's rate of unemployment is at 40% in terms of the expanded definition and job-losses due to company retrenchments are continuing. South Africa is also reputed to have the highest level of inequality in the world.

While the government has continued to fail to deliver on promises of job-creation, many unemployed people are creatively surviving and ensuring their own livelihoods while simultaneously contributing to a cleaner environment. One such group is the growing number of waste-pickers.

Listen to the Workers' World discussion on this topic with Musa Chamane - waste campaigner from Groundwork in Pietermaritzburg and Maditlhare Koena - Western Cape provincial co-ordinator for the South African Waste Pickers Association by clicking here.

Picture: Simon Waller for groundWork

Doubling SO2 pollution standards would have deadly consequences for Highveld communities

11 July 2019 - A new study has shown that the doubling of air pollution standards for sulphur dioxide (SO2), proposed by the previous Environment Minister Nomvula Mokonyane in May 2019, would cause thousands of deaths on the Highveld.

The study conducted by Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at Greenpeace Global Air Pollution Unit, shows that, over time, an estimated 3,300 premature deaths would be caused by doubling the SO2 standard, as a result of increased risk of lower respiratory infections, increased risk of stroke, and increased risk of death from diabetes – with approximately 1,000 of these premature deaths estimated in Gauteng. The studies also show profound health impacts on children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those already suffering from asthma, heart, and lung disease.

In October 2018, former Minister Mokonyane published the doubled SO2 minimum emission standard (MES) limit without having invited public comment, as the Air Quality Act requires. In April 2019, environmental justice group groundWork was forced to institute to set aside the unlawful notice. In May 2019, the Minister withdrew the unlawful notice and gave the public 30 days to comment on the same proposal to weaken the SO2 standard.

Last month, the Life After Coal Campaign (LAC), along with 4 community-based organisations, submitted detailed and comprehensive objections to the proposal.

From the outset, LAC and the community-based organisations have vigorously objected to the Department of Environmental Affairs’ proposal to weaken the MES limit for SO2, a highly toxic pollutant that is known to cause significant harm to human health and the environment.

This amendment would allow all coal-fired boilers to emit double their previously allowed SO2 pollution from 1 April 2020, including Eskom and Sasol, South Africa’s biggest emitters of SO2. Eskom’s coal-fired power stations and Sasol’s coal boilers are all located in South Africa’s air pollution priority areas - the Highveld Priority Area, the Vaal Triangle Airshed Priority Area, and the Waterberg-Bojanala Priority Area – declared as such due to the already-deadly levels of air pollution in these areas.

The LAC and its community-based partners argue that it would be plainly unlawful for government to weaken the MES, which were set more than 9 years ago to reduce the detrimental impacts caused by air pollutants such as SO2.

Doubling the already-lax SO2 MES, would make these approximately 10 times weaker than the equivalent standard in India and 28 times weaker than the equivalent standard in China. If the Department does weaken the limit, these organisations contend that this would be a clear violation of South Africa’s air quality laws and of the Constitution, making it unlawful and invalid.

Read the full media release here.

New Full Disclosure Report: How a broken regulatory system allows Mpumalanga coal mines to pollute water with impunity

03 July 2019 - A new report on the compliance of eight large coal mining operations in Mpumalanga, released by the Centre for Environmental Rights today, has uncovered many cases of significant non-compliance with water use licences – licences which are an essential requirement for the commencement of their mining activities.

The report, which forms part of the CER’s Full Disclosure series, reveals complete failure by the Department of Water & Sanitation to monitor compliance with water use licences for the eight coal mines and to take enforcement action where violations are patently obvious, painting a picture of a broken national department unable to fulfill its statutory mandate of water resource protection.

This is despite the fact that the Upper Olifants Catchment, where the eight coal mines are situated, has been identified by that department as one of South Africa’s most stressed catchment areas in relation to both water quantity and quality. Six of the eight companies assessed in CER’s new report collectively use around 8 million cubic metres of water per annum – equivalent to approximately 3195 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Coal mining is particularly harmful to water resources, with acid mine drainage from coal mines polluting surface and groundwater with acid, salts and metals. The Upper Olifants Catchment is characterised by a high density of active and abandoned coal mines, coal fired power stations and acid mine water discharge sites, resulting in severe degradation of water quality in the catchment.

Read the full CER media release here.

Environmental groups take government to High Court over violation of Constitutional right to clean air

Groups claim pollution from coal-fired power plants in the Highveld Priority Area violates right to a healthy environment under the Constitution

10 June 2019 - On Friday, 7 June 2019, environmental justice group groundWork and Mpumalanga community organisation Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action (Vukani) launched landmark litigation demanding that government clean up the air in the Mpumalanga Highveld.

groundWork and Vukani, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), claim that government has violated the Constitutional right to a healthy environment for the people living and working in the Highveld Priority Area (HPA), by failing to improve the deadly levels of air pollution in the HPA.

“Living in Witbank, one of the most polluted areas in the country, has hugely affected our health and lives. Both government and industry have continuously failed to deal with the problem, irrespective of our efforts to engage with them to ensure they take steps to protect human health. Together with groundWork, Vukani has decided to use litigation to push government to take urgent steps to deal with the high air pollution and in the interest of our health and to protect our right to clean air”, says Vusi Mabaso, Chairperson of Vukani.

In 2007, the then Minister of Environmental Affairs declared the Highveld as a Priority Area because of its poor air quality. At the time, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) acknowledged that it was an air pollution hotspot of extremely poor air quality and that “there was little doubt that people living and working in these areas do not enjoy air quality that is not harmful to their health and wellbeing”. Nearly 5 years later, in 2012, the Minister published an air quality management plan(“the HPA AQMP”) to clean up the Highveld Priority Area’s air pollution. But since then, little has changed.

Read the full media release here.

2019 World Environment Day highlights SA deaths due to air pollution

04 June 2019 - On the 5th of June each year, the United Nations hosts World Environment Day, which is used to bring global awareness to severe environmental issues that require urgent political action.
This year’s World Environment Day is especially significant for South Africa where air pollution from coal-fired power stations kills more than 2 200 people every year. The theme for the 2019 United Nation’s annual World Environmental Day is “Beat Air Pollution” and aims to draw attention to the silent killer around us.

According to recent data from the World Health Organization, more than 7 million people die from air pollution, globally, every year. This includes more than 1.7 million child deaths every year, worldwide.

A 2017 report by UK-based air quality and health expert, Dr Mike Holland, found that air pollution from Eskom coal-fired power stations kills more than 2,200 South Africans every year, and causes thousands of cases of bronchitis and asthma in adults and children annually. “This costs the country more than R34 billion annually, through hospital admissions and lost working days,” says Bobby Peek, Director of environmental justice group groundWork.

Read the full media release here.

Court disallows access to documents in preliminary SLAPP suit hearing

31 May 2019 - Yesterday, Judge Judith Cloete denied the application by two former CER attorneys and a community activist for subsidiary of Australian mining company MRC to disclose documents relating to the Tormin mineral sands operation near Lutzville on the West Coast. The applicants argue that they require these documents for their defence of the defamation claims brought by the company, Mineral Sands Resources (MSR).

MSR sued the three women in the Western Cape High Court after a presentation they made at the University of Cape Town’s Summer School in 2017.

The documents the defendants sought include records like the mine’s approved Social and Labour Plan, reports the mine needs to submit in terms of mining laws, reports by the mine’s environmental control officers, and email correspondence between the then mine manager Gary Thompson and MRC CEO Mark Caruso.

In her ruling, the judge found that the defendants should have pleaded their defence in greater detail, and held that requiring the mining company to provide so many documents to the defendants was “an impossibly burdensome task”.

Read the full CER media release here.

Mining company's SLAPP suit against CER lawyers, activist in court today

29 May 2019 - The Western Cape High Court will today hear a preliminary application in one of three defamation suits launched against lawyers and activists who have been critical of Australian miner Mineral Commodities Limited (MRC)'s Tormin mining operation at Lutzville on the West Coast, and its planned mining operation at Xolobeni in Pondoland on the Wild Coast.

In one of the cases, Mineral Sands Resources (MSR), a subsidiary of MRC, sued two former lawyers from the Centre For Environmental Rights, Tracey Davies and Christine Reddell, and West Coast community activist, Davine Cloete, for a total of R1,25 million for alleged defamatory statements made at the University of Cape Town's Summer School in 2017.

Today, the High Court hears an application for an order compelling MSR to disclose key documents required for the defendants' defence. The company has argued that it is not obliged to provide these documents, which include a range of environmental permits and scientific reports.

Read the full CER media release here.

Asina Loyiko: Activists unite against corporate censorship and bullying

28 May 2019 - Today, civil society organisations, including groundWork, officially launched a new joint advocacy campaign in Cape Town known as Asina Loyiko: United Against Corporate Bullying.

The campaign comes in response to the growing number of corporations, both in South Africa and globally, who use a tactic termed “SLAPP suits” – Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation - to silence criticism and suppress public activism. These SLAPPs undermine Constitutional rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the media, and academic freedom.

SLAPPs, which often take the form of defamation suits, have become a trend around the world, including in South Africa, and particularly in relation to environmental defenders.

Australian mining company Mineral Resources Commodities Ltd (MRC), listed on the Australian Securities Exchange, has sued environmental activists, lawyers (including two former CER attorneys), a journalist and a newspaper for defamation in the amount of R9,25 million. These defamation suits are based on comments made by individuals critical of MRC and its South African subsidiaries – including statements made during  a lecture at the University of Cape Town Summer School in 2017.

Read the full media release here.

Durban floods - An open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa

Ten people were trapped inside a house at Westcliff Secondary School on Crimby Avenue, Chatsworth, after heavy rainfall on 22 April 2019 caused the embankment to collapse. Photo: Aisha Abdool Karim, Daily Maverick

24 May 2019 - The massive floods that hit KZN, and Durban in particular, in April 2019 are yet another indicator of how climate change is affecting our resilience, a fact acknowledged by President Cyril Ramaphosa. But there has been a strange silence since then, and big, carbon-intensive programmes are steaming ahead in the port city. Surely the time for talking is over?

President Ramaphosa, on 24 April 2019, you visited South Durban neighbourhoods. You had returned home to South Africa early from an important African Union conference because a catastrophic storm hit us on Easter Monday. The “rain bomb” that pounded South Durban included 168mm of downpour in 24 hours, by far the worst flooding ever recorded in the city.

Upon visiting our communities, you immediately gave us sound analysis: “This is partly what climate change is about, it just hits when we least expect it.”

We agree that the climate crisis must be talked about. And we hope you agree that the forces that caused this crisis – the major greenhouse gas emitters in the fossil fuel industries, transport (air, shipping and automotive), corporate agriculture, carbon-intensive production and consumption systems, and methane-emitting disposal at landfills, and their financiers – must be named and shamed.

Read the full open letter from Desmond D’Sa, (winner of the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize, and co-ordinator of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance here.

Activists demand answers from polluter ArcelorMittal at its shareholder meeting

23 May 2019 - Local environmental justice group the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA), together with local communities from Sebokeng, Boipatong, Boiphelong and Sharpeville, protested outside ArcelorMittal South Africa’s headquarters in Vanderbijlpark this morning as shareholders made their way to AMSA’s Annual General Meeting (AGM).

Armed with signs saying “Stand with Us Against Big Polluters”, “AMSA Must Comply with MES”, and “Prevent Pollution, Protect Nature”, community members made clear their demands of the shareholders and executives of ArcelorMittal South Africa (AMSA).

Communities in the Vaal have suffered the effects of pollution from AMSA’s Vanderbijlpark plant for many decades.

Read the full CER media release here.

Victory - Environment Minister withdraws illegally doubled SO2 pollution standards

Pollution haze from an Eskom power station

Pollution haze from an Eskom power station - Photo: Simon Waller for groundWork

23 May 2019 - Following groundWork’s litigation instituted last month to set aside government’s unlawful plan to double the amount of the harmful pollutant sulphur dioxide (SO2) polluters are allowed to emit, the Environmental Affairs Minister yesterday withdrew this provision.

The doubling had been published for implementation on 31 October 2018 without inviting public comment on it as the Air Quality Act requires – which made it unlawful.

In an attempt to remedy this failure, the Minister has now published a second notice, in which she invites 30 days’ public comment on the same proposed amendment to the minimum emission standards which would allow all coal-fired boilers to emit double their previously-allowed SO2 pollution from 1 April 2020.
Eskom and Sasol are South Africa’s biggest emitters of SO2.

SO2 is a notorious pollutant that causes significant harm to human health and the environment. It can affect the respiratory system and the functions of the lungs, and causes irritation of the eyes. Inflammation of the respiratory tract causes coughing, mucus secretion, aggravation of asthma and chronic bronchitis, and makes people more prone to infections of the respiratory tract.  Studies have linked SO2 to low birth weight in infants and an increased risk for gestational diabetes mellitus, stillbirths, and pre-term births. Hospital admissions for cardiac disease and mortality increase on days with higher SO2 levels.  When SO2 combines with water, it forms sulphuric acid, which is the main component of acid rain.

Read the full media release here.

Vaal Community take to Mass Action - Challenging Corporate Environmental Injustices – Challenging ArcelorMittal and Seriti Mining

23 May 2019 - In a media release the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) has announced that:

"Today, the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance kicks off two days of mass action against corporate environmental injustices in the Vaal area. Corporates such as ArcelorMittal South Africa (AMSA) and Seriti continue with impunity their everyday business of polluting society that impacts upon people's health and well-being. Government is a co-conspirator for they fail to enforce laws that are there to protect the people of the Vaal.

The Vaal Triangle was declared the first High Priority Area (HPA) by the Department of Environmental Affairs in 2006. Since then nothing has changed in terms of compliance with ambient air quality standards that harms people’s health and well-being".

Read the full media release here.

Records show Minister's failure to interrogate devastating impacts of proposed coal plant

21 May 2019 - New records filed in court by the Department of Environmental Affairs show that the Minister of Environmental Affairs did not properly consider the unacceptably high climate impacts of the proposed Thabametsi coal-fired power station, which was first authorised in February 2015.

These records were filed as part of environmental justice group Earthlife Africa and groundWork's court challenge instituted in March last year to set aside the Minister of Environmental Affairs' decision to authorise the emission-intensive Thabametsi coal-fired power station in Limpopo. The Minister authorised the plant irrespective of the evidence of the project's very high climate change impacts, which the Minister had been ordered (in a previous successful court challenge by Earthlife Africa) in March 2017  to consider. Earthlife Africa and groundWork now have filed supplementary papers, setting out the Minister's failures.

Thabametsi, if it proceeds, would be one of the most emission-intensive coal-fired power stations in the world, and would cost South Africa R12.57 billion in comparison to a least-cost electricity system.

Read the full media release here.

Global Green and Healthy Hospitals releases 2018 Annual Report

Health education poster from India

GGHH member hospitals in India are monitoring air pollution and educating their communities on the health impacts. The Healthy Energy Initiative India developed advocacy and educational posters.

15 May 2019 - Global Green and Healthy Hospitals (GGHH), a project of Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), is an international network of hospitals, health care facilities, health systems, and health organizations dedicated to reducing their environmental footprint and promoting public and environmental health.

Launched in 2011, the GGGH network has more than 1,160 members in 55 countries on 6 continents who represent the interests of over 36,000 hospitals and health centres. From small rural health clinics, to modern urban hospitals, to sub-national and national ministries of health, the GGHH network is as diverse as it is expansive.

This diversity and reach is the strength and backbone of GGHH that supports network members to take action. By sharing experiences, successes and challenges, GGHH members are working together locally, nationally, regionally and internationally to transform the health sector and foster a healthy, sustainable future.

Download the full report here (12 MB).

CER calls for a new Climate Change portfolio in the Presidency

14 May 2019 - The Centre for Environmental Rights has written to President Ramaphosa about his upcoming cabinet selection, asking him to give priority to the urgent need to improve environmental governance in South Africa by appointing Ministers and Deputy Ministers who are strong, forward thinking leaders, committed to reforming environmental and water governance, and addressing the global threat of climate change.

In particular, CER has recommended that a climate change portfolio be created in the Presidency, alternatively that a new Department of Energy and Climate be created; and that no attempt be made to merge the dysfunctional Department of Water & Sanitation with another department.

Read the full media release here.

groundWork goes to court to defeat Minister’s plan to weaken air pollution standards

06 May 2019 - Environmental justice group groundWork, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), has launched High Court proceedings against Environmental Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane and the President of South Africa to set aside government’s plan to double the amount of the harmful pollutant sulphur dioxide (SO2) polluters are allowed to emit.

The weakening of the standards gazetted by the Minister would allow all coal-fired boilers to emit double their previously-allowed SO2 pollution from 1 April 2020. This includes the already heavily-polluted Vaal, Highveld and Waterberg Priority Areas, where coal pollution kills thousands of people every year.

The weakened standards for SO2 are now approximately 10 times weaker than the equivalent standards in India and about 28 times weaker than the standards in China.

If the court agrees with groundWork, big SO2 emitters like Eskom and Sasol will have to act immediately to reduce their pollution and so reduce their impact on people’s health and well-being.  This will require significant capital expenditure – which industries want to avoid – or they could face both criminal and civil action for violating the law.

Read the full media release here.

South Africa: Activists in Mining Areas Harassed - Government, Companies Should Protect Environment Defenders

16 April 2019 – Community activists in mining areas in South Africa face harassment, intimidation, and violence, the Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork, Earthjustice, and Human Rights Watch said in a joint report and video released today. The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilize to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants.

The 74-page report "We Know Our Lives Are in Danger’: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities” and video cites activists’ reports of intimidation, violence, damage to property, use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest for their activities in highlighting the negative impacts of mining projects on their communities. Municipalities often impose barriers to protest on organizers that have no legal basis. Government officials have failed to adequately investigate allegations of abuse, and some mining companies resort to frivolous lawsuits and social media campaigns to further curb opposition to their projects. The government has a constitutional obligation to protect activists.

In communities across South Africa, the rights of activists to peacefully organize to protect their livelihoods and the environment from the harm of mining are under threat,” said Matome Kapa, attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights. “South African authorities should address the environmental and health concerns related to mining, instead of harassing the activists voicing these concerns.”

Read the full media release here.

Roundup still in SA despite cancer fears

08 April 2019 - Pharmaceuticals company Bayer says its subsidiary Monsanto will continue to sell its Roundup weed killer in SA despite a US jury last month awarding nearly $80m to a man who claimed it had given him cancer. According to court documents, Edwin Hardeman, 70, used Roundup for 30 years. Though no direct link between Hardeman's cancer and Roundup has been confirmed, the jury voted in his favour on the basis that there were insufficient warnings about the risk of using the product. Last year, a jury awarded Dewayne Johnson, who has non Hodgkin's lymphoma, $78m in damages for his exposure to Roundup.

A spokesperson for Bayer cited 800 studies, including a 2018 National Cancer Institute study that found there was no link between glyphosate based herbicides and cancer, as evidence of the products' safety. However, 2015 research by the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer found that gly phosate was a probable carcinogen, or cancer causing substance.

Rico Euripidou, groundWork's Health Campaign Manager, said that most farm workers in SA were not properly informed about Roundup's hazardous properties, sometimes couldn't read or understand the labels and did not have equipment to protect them from exposure. "Most farm workers I have observed especially in the forestry sector who apply Roundup do so with leaking knapsacks on their naked backs, or soaked through T shirts during the many calendar days when they are applying the weedkiller. If they get sick they are taken to a rural clinic which is not equipped to understand nor manage or measure their exposure and treatment, and instead if they are too sick to work they will in all likelihood be sent home to deal with their health impacts them selves".

Read the full Sunday Times article here.

Jon White

Tributes to Jon White

28 March 2019 - On Thursday, 14 March 2019, Jon White, groundWork's founding board member and long-time chairperson passed away after a yearlong battle with cancer. The groundWork staff and the Board of Trustees will sorely miss Jon.

You can read the tributes written by Chris Albertyn (Founding member of Earthlife Africa and first Director of the Environmental Justice Networking Forum) and David Hallowes (groundWork Researcher here.

groundWork pays tribute to Denny Larson

Denny Larson

27 March 2019 - I remember the booming voice in the Texanco oil refinery passage way.  “Don’t go there, back off.’ It was in response to an oil industry hack questioning the science behind the air pollution sampling system, the community-developed Bucket Brigade, that the man with the booming voice trail-blazed throughout the world. 

Yes, it is a strange name, the Bucket Brigade, for an air pollution sampling system.  But it’s name aside, it was an invention which brought science into grassroots communities and the environmental movement domain, giving people the capacity and the intellectual confidence, through hard evidence, to challenge power.  That man was Denny Larson, founder of the Global Community Monitor. He was a man who was not easy to work with, nor live with.  But then very few activists are – ask my wife.  But what he was dedicated to at all cost, even at times to the detriment of himself, was making sure that people had power via science.

I got to know Denny when, in 1995, we were challenging the ex-Mobil oil refinery 143m from my then-house.  We sent a message to the oil refinery activists list serve in the US – yes the early days of list serves – and Denny was the first to respond with advice and the Good Neighbour Handbook. This was to be a start of a long relationship.

Read the full tribute written by groundWork Director, Bobby Peek, here.

groundWork releases 2018 Report: Boom or Bust in the Waterberg - A history of coal mega projects

12 March 2019 - The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report: Global Warming of 1.50C leaves you with faint hope even as it waters down its messages. It warns of the urgency of addressing climate change and hope lies in the message that democracy is at the core of getting us out of the dark pit of the so-called realism that avoids real action.

Social justice and equity are important in how groundWork understands environmental justice. For us, it is about solidarity and equity. I do not have much faith in politicians taking the IPCC seriously but, even if they do, the report allows them too many loop-holes. They will take them as a free pass for business as usual.

So reports such as Boom and Bust in the Waterberg are important. There are no loopholes. It makes it clear: get out of coal, get out of fossil fuels. But more importantly, this will not happen if there is no mobilisation by society, if there is no solidarity between workers and communities, if there are no linkages between the urban and the rural, between those who have and those who do not.

Mega projects have repeatedly failed society. The report picks up on the essence of how politicians and officials lie about the numbers to get these mega projects going. They over estimated the growth of energy demand to justify the decision to invest in Medupi and Kusile. The community did not ask for them, but energy poverty was used as a pretext. The reality is that the politicians, the Energy Intensive Users Group and Eskom itself pushed for it. They wanted big power stations designed to supply big industry. Now big industry does not want to acknowledge its role and responsibility in the meltdown but demands a cut price on power for industry.

You can read the media release here.

You can download the full report here.

CER condemns State Security Agency spying on civil society organisations

10 March 2019 - The Centre for Environmental Rights condemns in the strongest terms the “active monitoring” undertaken by the State Security Agency (SSA) of civil society organisations, as reported in the December 2018 Report of the High-Level Review Panel on the SSA released by the Presidency over the weekend.

“While many civil society organisations now take standard precautionary measures to protect our organisations, our work and our staff from all forms and sources of surveillance and attack, it is chilling to see official confirmation of the use of state resources to spy on and interfere in the work of civil society organisations,” says Melissa Fourie, Executive Director of the Centre for Environmental Rights. “It is important to remember that the organisations named in the SSA report work in the public interest to promote Constitutional democratic objectives like free speech, open democracy, a healthy environment and a safe climate. These Constitutional values and rights should be objectives shared by and actively realised by the state. The SSA report suggests that state machinery was used to undermine Constitutional principles so fundamental to our democracy.”

Next month, the Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork, Earthjustice and Human Rights Watch will publish a report on the threats faced by environmental rights defenders in South Africa from both the state and corporates.

For queries, contact CER Executive Director Melissa Fourie on mfourie@cer.org.za or CER Deputy Director Wandisa Phama on wphama@cer.org.za.

Big polluter Eskom regularly exceeds air pollution limits – damning new report

25 February 2019 - A new international expert report commissioned by the Life After Coal campaign shows that pollution from nearly all of Eskom’s coal-fired power plants persistently and significantly violates the air pollution limits in its licences. This is not only illegal, but also means that Eskom is continuously endangering the health and violating the human rights of millions of people affected by this pollution.

The international expert report was based on Eskom’s own monthly reports of the emissions from its coal power plants, which Eskom submitted to authorities.

A new report by U.S. coal plant expert Dr Ranajit Sahu has found that, over a 21 month period until December 2017, Eskom’s coal power plants exceeded its already-weak licence conditions close to 3200 times.

The exceedances relate to all three regulated pollutants for coal plants, namely sulphur dioxide(SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), and particulate matter (PM) – including soot and ash.

The offending plants with the most frequent licence exceedances were Lethabo, Matla, Matimba, and Kriel.

Read the full media release here.

Watchdog Group Uses GPS Trackers to Discover Illegal Electronic Waste Exports from Europe to Africa and Asia

Seattle, WA, USA. 07 February 2019 - The global environmental watchdog organization Basel Action Network (BAN) today released the findings of a two-year study in 10 EU countries that followed 314 old computers, printers, and monitors in which GPS Trackers had been secretly installed. This equipment was then delivered to places where consumers are expected to take their waste -- most often government-approved takeback stations. They found that 19 (6%) of the tracked scrap equipment was exported, including 11 very likely illegal shipments to the countries of Ghana, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tanzania, Thailand, and Ukraine, outside of the EU. 

Following GPS signals across the globe -- here is the location where an LCD deployed in Germany ended up -- in a equipment smashing operation outside of Bangkok in Thailand. Copyright BAN 2018.

The report, Holes in the Circular Economy: WEEE Leakage from Europe, estimates that the flows discovered with figures regarding WEEE generation in Europe, if extrapolated, would total 352,474 metric tonnes per annum, moving from the EU to developing countries. This amount could fill 17,466 large-size intermodal shipping containers. If they were loaded onto trucks, the trucks would stretch back-to-back for 401 kilometers.

"It appears that we have discovered a very significant stream of illegal shipments of hazardous consumer electronic scrap to vulnerable populations," said BAN Director Jim Puckett. "This flies in the face of EU claims to make continuous efforts to implement a circular economy which can only responsibly exist by eliminating externalities and leakage from the system."

Of the 10 countries studied (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the UK), all countries excepting Hungary were involved in exports. The UK was clearly the worst violator with 5, with most of those going to Africa. Italy, Germany, Spain, Ireland, and Poland were also implicated in allowing shipments to developing countries. BAN subsequently visited some of the destinations.

Read the full media release here.

The myth of clean coal

Cover of

07 February 2019 - We’re recirculating our report “The Myth of Clean Coal” in view of Minister Jeff Radebe’s comments at the Mining Indaba yesterday that government is “investing in research to develop clean coal technologies”. Earlier, Minister Gwede Manatashe had called for investment in "clean technology" to counter the "siege on the coal industry".

Unfortunately, coal can never be “clean”.

The report investigates the coal cycle and demonstrates the extent and severity of the various impacts associated with the mining, beneficiation, and combustion of coal, and demonstrates that there are no solutions which are able to completely mitigate coal’s enormous resource consumption and harm to health and the environment. 

Download the full report here.

CER calls on Minister Mantashe to address mining company’s attempts to silence activists

Some of the defendants in the defamation suits by Australian mining company MRC meeting in Cape Town in 2018Some of the defendants in the defamation suits by Australian mining company MRC meeting in Cape Town in 2018

07 February 2018 - Ahead of Mineral Resources Minister Mantashe’s planned 8 February 2019 visit to Australian mining company Mineral Commodities Limited’s Tormin mineral sands mine on the West Coast, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) has asked the Minister to take note of MRC’s coordinated campaign of litigation against activists, lawyers and the media to silence criticism of the company and its operations, in violation of Constitutional rights of freedom of speech, freedom of media, academic freedom and environmental rights.

Mineral Commodities Limited (MRC) is the mining company that has applied to open a new mineral sands mine at Xolobeni on the Wild Coast. In 2016, anti-mining activist Sikosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe was assassinated at Xolobeni. No-one has yet been arrested for his murder.

Read the full media release here.

Court orders government to disclose records on coal power plants

06 February 2019 -Yesterday, the High Court in Pretoria ordered government to deliver crucial records relating to the judicial reviews instituted by groundWork and Earthlife Africa, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, to set aside the environmental authorisations for the two preferred bidder coal-fired power stations – Thabametsi and Khanyisa – under the Coal Baseload Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (“the coal IPPs”).

The outstanding records, if and when received, should give an indication of the extent to which the Minister and Department of Environmental Affairs considered the extremely high climate change impacts of the coal IPPs.

Read the full media release here.

Eskom's latest attempt to avoid pollution standards met with vigorous opposition

06 February 2019 - Earlier this week, the Life After Coal/Impilo Ngaphandle Kwamalahle Campaign, and the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) submitted a strongly worded opposition to Eskom’s latest round of applications for more time to comply with pollution standards – the minimum emission standards (MES) – and, in some cases, permission never to meet certain standards.

Eskom seeks this special treatment for ten of its polluting coal-fired stations despite: being granted leniency in the past; failing to meet the legally-required conditions to seek postponements of or suspensions from compliance; and failing to comply with their current air emission licences.

The law requires that these applications can only be sought where air quality in the area meets the health-based air quality standards. Despite this, all of the power stations for which applications have been made are located in areas with severely-degraded air quality and where South Africa’s weak standards are not met.

Eskom has also failed to demonstrate, as the law demands, that its air emissions are not causing direct adverse impacts – in fact, 2017 research conducted by UK-based air quality and health expert Dr Mike Holland found that Eskom’s air pollution is responsible for more than 2,200 deaths every year, and causes thousands of cases of bronchitis and asthma in adults and children annually.

Read the full media release here.

MEC will not exclude properties from Mabola: Protected Environment remains intact

29 January 2019 - The members of the coalition of civil society organisations who have been challenging mining company Atha Africa's proposed new coal mine inside a Mpumalanga strategic water source area welcome the decision of Mpumalanga MEC Vusumuzi Shongwe to withdraw his notice of intention to exclude the area proposed for mining from the Mabola Protected Environment.

MEC Shongwe had published his intention to exclude the proposed mining area from the Mabola Protected Environment in October 2018, and had called on the public to submit their comments and objections. The coalition submitted a comprehensive objection to the proposed exclusion in December 2018.

The intended exclusion would not have been legally defensible, and the coalition would have been obliged to apply to the High Court to set aside such a decision. The coalition is reassured by the MEC's decision not to go ahead with the exclusion, and relieved that it does not have a further legal challenge on its hands.

Read the full media release here.

High Court refuses mining company's leave to appeal in the Mabola case

22 January 2019 - In another victory for the civil society coalition defending a Mpumalanga strategic water source area, the North Gauteng High Court today refused mining company Atha Africa leave to appeal the court's decision to set aside permissions for a new coal mine inside a declared protected environment.

In 2016, without public consultation and without notice to the coalition, the two Ministers gave their permission for a large, 15-year coal mine to be built inside the Mabola Protected Environment.

In November 2018, the Court set aside the permission and referred the decision back to the two Ministers for reconsideration on the basis that the Ministers did not take their decisions in an open and transparent manner or in a manner that promoted public participation, and that the decisions were therefore procedurally unfair. The High Court also ordered the Ministers and MEC to pay the coalition's legal costs on an attorney and client (punitive) scale.

Today, the court heard Atha Africa's application for leave to appeal the November decision to a full bench of the High Court or the Supreme Court of Appeal. The High Court refused Atha's application. The court also ordered Atha Africa to pay the legal costs of the coalition of civil society organisations who successfully opposed the application for leave to appeal.

Read the full media release here.

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