Will SA violate new UN Convention on POPs?

22 May 2001 - This week the South African government takes a bold and courageous step in joining countries around the world in signing a new United Nations convention to eliminate certain harmful chemicals. However, the South African government appears to be already considering flouting this agreement by apparently supporting the construction of a POPs incinerator in Sasolburg.

This week in Stockholm, Sweden, the Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs, Rejoice Mabudafhasi is joining diplomats from countries around the world in signing the United Nations Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. The Convention also requires that governments actively identify POPs stockpiles in their countries and then decontaminate and dispose of these chemicals in an environmentally safe and sustainable manner.

The United Nations Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants initially focuses on 12 pollutants – referred to as the “dirty dozen” but additional pollutants will be continuously added to the initial list.

The initial 12 pollutants are: DDT, Mirex, Dieldrin, chlordane, heptachlor, toxaphene, aldrin, and endrin (all pesticides), hexachlorobenzene (HCB – a pesticide and an industrial chemical), dioxins and furans (both useless by-products of certain industrial processes) and PCBs, which are used in electric transformers. All of these chemicals have been linked to very serious impacts on wildlife populations and human health, and several of them are known or probable carcinogens.

While with one hand the SA government is signing this treaty in front of the international world, with the other hand the SA government is apparently considering contravening this treaty by apparently giving the thumbs up to a proposal to incinerate tens of thousands of POPs in Sasolburg. From documents at our disposal we have learnt that a South African company called Peacock Bay Environmental Services (PBES) is presently undertaking an EIA for the construction of a new incinerator in Sasolburg which will be used to burn stockpiled hazardous waste, a large percentage of which is POPs. A senior government official has informed us that he is both aware and approving of this proposal.

Such a project is in direct contravention of the Stockholm Convention:

    1. 1. The proposed incinerator will emit dioxins and furans, which are 2 of the initial 12 chemicals identified in the treaty for elimination. All signatories of the Stockholm Convention will be required to work towards the eventual elimination of all new sources of dioxins and furans. Such a commitment entails of necessity the phasing out of all incinerators.
    2. 2. The proposed method of treating existing POPs stockpiles flies in the face of existing alternative non-incineration technologies for the safe decontamination and disposal of POPs stockpiles. SA has recourse to the Global Environment Facility (GEF) for financial and scientific assistance in the safe decontamination and disposal of POPs.

The presence of stockpiled POPs is a serious threat to the environment and health of South Africans, and as such the SA government should take the lead in ensuring the safe treatment and disposal of these POPs. The SA government is abdicating its constitutional responsibilities to its citizens, as well as its international responsibilities by allowing the private sector to take the lead on this project in the pursuit of financial gain at the expense of human health and the environment.

This week groundWork, together with several international organisations, will be sending a letter to Minister Valli Moosa, drawing his attention to the Sasolburg proposal and requesting his direct intervention in halting the project.

The signing of this treaty has other immediate implications for South Africa government policy and practises.

Pesticides: South Africa has banned the use of 8 of the pesticides, but continues to condone the controlled use of DDT for malaria control. It is also highly likely that several of these pesticides continue to be used illegally in rural areas in SA. As a signatory South Africa will now be required to implement existing alternative methods for malaria control, instead of depending on DDT. The government will also be required to clamp down on the illegal distribution and use of banned pesticides, and identify pesticide stockpiles requiring decontamination and disposal.

Dioxins and Furans: The lax environmental standards in South Africa allow for the uncontrolled and excessive production of dioxins and furans. Both these chemicals are carcinogens and are created by incinerators, pulp and paper manufacturing and refinery processes. As a signatory South Africa will be required to impose a moratorium on all new waste incinerators, and phase out existing incinerators, as well as place stricter pollution control requirements on all dioxin- and furan-producing industrial activities.

PCBs: While PCBs are no longer used in new electrical transformers, they are present in older transformers. In addition there are stockpiles of PCBs, which need to be identified, decontaminated and safely disposed of.

For information on the health impacts of POPs see the attached document.

For more information contact:

groundWork: Linda Ambler or Bobby Peek on tel: 033-342 5662 or team@groundwork.org.za

International POPs Elimination Network: Karen Perry on kperry@igc.org

For more information on safe destruction technologies for POPs see:

Greenpeace: http://www.greenpeace.org/~toxics/reports/alttech2.pdf

World Health Organisation: http://www.who.int/ifcs/isg3/d98-17b.htm