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Report by MELANIE GOSLING in the Cape Times

May 14, 1997 -- Between 1980 and 1995 there was no co-ordination between government departments responsible for the environment, a probe has found.

Thor Chemicals, the British-owned company in KwaZulu-Natal which became a hotbed of controversy after two workers died of mercury poisoning and local rivers were polluted, has been slammed by a commission of inquiry for continuing to import thousands of tons of toxic waste when it was clear there was no way it could be processed. The company had shown a "disturbingly careless attitude" to the environment and instead of taking steps to solve its problems, had continued to import more toxic waste.

In a report released in the city yesterday, commission chairman Professor Dennis Davis also slammed the government of the late 1980s and early '90s for creating a situation "by omission or commission", whereby companies were able to bring toxic waste into South Africa in a fairly uncontrolled fashion. The report said events relating to waste mercury between 1980 and 1995 revealed "a picture of total absence of co-ordination between the relevant government departments responsible for the environment" and "inexplicable inefficiency and unexplained omission".

Davis said there was a "litany of evidence" that various government departments had not been up to the task of co-ordinating and controlling the industry and Thor Chemicals had exploited this. "The commission was never able to pinpoint what (Thor's) motives were, but there is no doubt that they were able to exploit a situation when they knew full well they were not able to handle the toxic waste. It is also clear there was not sufficient surveillance or policing of Thor (by the authorities)," Davis said. The commission was appointed by President Nelson Mandela in March 1995 to investigate the background to Thor Chemicals (Pty) Ltd acquiring a three-million-kilogram waste mercury stockpile.

Davis said: "There were officials who knew there were problems and who reported them, but they were lost in the archipelago of government departments." Although then-Environment Minister Mr Gert Kotze had banned the importing of hazardous waste in 1990, he later wrote to Thor Chemicals, allowing them to continue to import waste mercury. "One can only ask, what was Mr Kotze doing? There are only three explanations: Either he had extremely poor advice, or he had a very cavalier attitude, or representations were made to him showing some benefit to the country which were never made clear to the commission.

"What is clear to the commission is the level of government culpability," Davis said. The commission decided to recommend that the best practical environmental option for dealing with the huge stockpile of mercury waste on Thor's premises was to incinerate it. Returning the waste to sender, as suggested by environmental groups, was rejected as transporting the mercury posed serious environmental problems. There was also no legal guarantee that the countries would be willing to accept the returned waste. The costs of disposing of the mercury should be borne by Thor. Because of the government's culpability, all other costs should be borne by the government.

Responding to the commission's findings, Environmental Minister Dr Pallo Jordan said yesterday the fragmentation of national waste management and pollution control had been identified as a weakness early in the life of his ministry. He had initiated developing an integrated pollution control policy to address this. The policy was nearing completion and would be followed by a joint waste management strategy. Jordan said that although a ban on importing toxic waste had been announced in 1990, there had been no legislation to enforce this at the time.

A second phase of the commission will investigate the regulations and enforcement of monitoring and control of mercury processing, and recommend steps that could help to minimise the risk to workers and the environment. This should be completed by the end of June or July.

The discovery in 1989 of mercury pollution in the rivers near the Thor factory led to a government investigation, which acknowledged there had been mercury spillages, but it was felt there was no cause for alarm. Later a Greenpeace video of the plant showed mercury levels 8 200 times higher than the US standards for hazardous waste. Thor at the time admitted no responsibility. Later two Thor workers, Mr Peter Cele and Mr Engelbrecht Ngcobo, died of mercury poisoning in the early '90s, and a third, Mr Albert Dlamini, was severely disabled. Thor's executives were acquitted on a charge of culpable homicide in 1994, but were found guilty of negligence and fined R13 000. Concerns over Thor were first raised in the 1980s at its factory in England, after allegations of excessive levels of mercury in the air and in workers' urine. When the British authorities threatened the company in 1988 with legal action, Thor moved its mercury production facilities to South Africa, where there was little control over the industry. In July 1994 Thor was refused permission to continue importing mercury waste into South Africa because it posed a serious threat to public health and to the environment. Tests had found that mercury emissions from Thor's incinerator were well above the maximum allowable concentrations.

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Report by Melanie Gosling in the Cape Times, 14 May 1997