Toxic waste tragedy still hanging over us - One of the biggest environmental injustices in SA has yet to be resolved - Bobby Peek

16 September 2019 - Friday I was in Cato Ridge, at the site of the skeletal remains of two burnt out warehouses which had stored the imported toxic waste of Thor Chemicals for the past three decades. Like the burnt warehouses past promises went up in flames. It was an in your face reminder that democracy has failed many. Especially people like Timto Summerto and Enoch Nkosi, both of whom are still waiting to see justice done.

Summerton and Nkosi, together with groundWork staffers, were meeting the Department of Environmental Affairs to get feedback on the fire. Nkosi clutched on to an original, but faded copy of Wasted Lives, which documented the history of Thor importation of toxic mercury waste from the UK, US, Italy, Brazil and Indonesia. For Summerton, it was the first time he was back at Thor Chemicals since being banned from the premises after giving evidence against Thor Chemicals at the Davis Commission of Inquiry, set up by then president Nelson Mandela in 1995 to investigate the importation of thousands of tons of toxic mercury waste into South Africa.

The mismanagement of this led to the pollution of neighbouring communities in Fredville, the Inanda Dam Durban's water source and the deaths of four workers, and injury of several others from exposure to the waste containing mercury and the incineration thereof. The commission found that the company operated with a "disturbingly careless attitude" toward people and the environment by importing toxic waste in the 1980s and early 1990s which they could not manage or, as some allege, never intended to manage in an environmentally sound manner in the first place.

Fast forward to August 9 this year, 30 years after Thor was exposed by a frustrated official because of a lack of action by the then apartheid authorities, the new Minister of Environment, Barbara Creecy finally announces that: "Thor is going to have to remove the waste and send it for processing". Two weeks later a convenient fire destroyed warehouses storing the imported toxic waste. It's been more than two decades since the commission found the government and Thor guilty of the tragedy. The inaction by a democratic government in dealing with this environmental, community and worker injustice has been frustrating and disappointing.

A search of the Department of Environment's website produces only one vague reference to Thor yet the environmental disaster related to its toxic waste is arguably one of the biggest in South Africa's recent history. So why has the government taken so long to deal with this toxic nightmare? While this is a noble endeavour, a "Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights" will fail if the government does not act with integrity on the Thor issue. But in the case of Thor, it's nearly too late.

Since the incident, groundWork has written to the ministry and phoned various government officials seeking answers again, but all we got in response was that the public will be informed. Workers corresponded with the minister before the fire but also received no meaningful response. But local community and ex workers, who are directly affected, and groundWork who has been working with the department, have a right to have their concerns addressed and it has been more than two decades since the commission found the government and Thor Chemicals guilty of the tragedy, surely this deserves better communication from government.

Communities live in the shadow of Thor and their mercury pollution; ex workers were injured and four people died as a result of mercury poisoning. GroundWork has been urging the government since 2009 to send the waste to a facility in Switzerland, where it can be treated safely. We have tried to be active citizens in this process, but at best we were used for media opportunities by the ex-political leadership of the ministry, when we were invited to be part of meetings addressing the community and workers.

On Tuesday the eThekwini Municipality advised residents to avoid contact with the river flowing from Thor through their neighbourhood because 'water samples indicated elevated levels of mercury in the water'. This was a bizarre statement for it said nothing about when and where the samples were taken.

Journalists who visited the community reported that the local community was unaware of this danger on Wednesday, and indeed, like three decades ago when the scandal first surfaced, children were still swimming in the Umngcwini stream. When we visited the holding dam of the Umngcwini Stream below Thor, that Summerton had built decades ago to hold back and then pump the mercury contaminated water back up to the Thor site, the dam was leaking, the pump house was broken and void of the pump, and it was clear that government officials had not visited the area in a long time to do any routine water and sediment sampling.

The question has to be asked: was the stream contaminated after the fire, or is it in a permanent state of contamination? I would bet the latter. I suggest the government and Umgeni Water make available all their sampling over the past two decades.

This crisis is because of a failure of our democratic governance. Like many other environmental hotspots in South Africa, be they the coal mining areas, the south Durban area, and many other industrial toxic dump sites across the country, the government needs to act in a manner that deals with these challenges as an environmental, community health and worker justice issue. Creecy has an opportunity to not go down in history as among those that failed society. We have to learn from this governance failure to inform future environmental justice governance as it is prescribed in the Constitution.

The second phase of the commission; to investigate the regulations and enforcement of monitoring and control of mercury processing, and recommend steps that could help to minimize the risk to workers and the environment, was never finalised.

Since then the Minamata Convention, that seeks to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury, has been agreed upon globally. South Africa has ratified it, but it means nothing if the intention of the second phase of the Commission is never realised. Much more constructive action is needed on mercury, chemical and toxic waste management, than just signing international agreements. Thor is just the tip of the iceberg. We have many other toxic waste legacy issues to deal with.