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ENVIRONMENT-HEALTH: Foreign Mercury Waste Still Contaminating South Africa

Danielle Knight

CATO RIDGE, South Africa, Mar 28 2001 (IPS) - When Ephraim Summerton was asked to dispose of some waste water on nearby grass while he was working for a British chemical company here in the Kwazulu-Natal province of South Africa, he says he did not think anything of it.

“I knew it was burning the grass, but I didn’t know the danger involved,” he says looking down at the ground and nodding his head.

Once one of the world’s largest mercury reprocessing plants, the facility where Summerton worked has since been forced to shut down, following the contamination of nearby streams and the deaths and poisoning of people who worked inside the plant.

Owned by Thor Chemicals, a British company now known in South Africa as Guernica Chemicals, the plant received thousands of tonnes of chemical waste in the 1980s and early 1990s from the United States and European companies, including American Cyanamid and Borden Chemicals, to be reprocessed.

All that remains of the facility, since the South African government forced the company to stop operations in 1994, are rusty and corroded machinery.

But about 1,000 tons of the waste remains at the site sitting in leaking barrels, says Summerton.

“That place is like a time bomb,” says Summerton, who worked as a building maintenance worker at the facility from 1988 to 1996. Since the plant was forced to close, environmental activists worldwide have been calling on the companies that originally sent the waste to South Africa to get it shipped back.

Thor began operating here in Cato Ridge in 1978. Mercury contamination was first discovered in the Umgeni River in July 1988 by the local water board. Then in 1990, the environmental watchdog Greenpeace sent in a team to take soil samples, which later revealed high deposits of mercury.

“When (Thor) realised that environmentalists were coming by, they asked me to burn the grass where I had poured the waste water,” says Summerton.

Mercury has been linked to many different neurological problems. Long-term exposure can result in symptoms that can lead to personality changes and even a coma or death.

The chemical is considered a global pollutant by many scientists because it does not break down and has the ability to travel great distances. Workers at the Cato Ridge plant, including Summerton, say they were not warned about the dangers of working with mercury. In the early 1990s, two workers died from mercury poisoning.

Summerton says the plant was not properly ventilated and workers would often inhale the waste. One week after he started working at Thor, he said he carried barrels of waste which resulted in massive burns and blistering on his neck.

“We would get sleepy and forgetful and have unexplained headaches,” he says. “But when we went to the company doctor, he said it was only in our mind, but I knew something was not right.”

When asked why he or other Thor employees did not quit their jobs, Summerton said that in their low-income black communities unemployment was high and they all needed the work. “Everyone wanted to work in the mercury plant because it paid the most,” he said.

In 1992, after many other employees at the plant complained of mercury poisoning, which included burns, feeling weak, and numbness, a government health screening was conducted. Almost 30 percent of the workers were found to be at risk of severe mercury poisoning.

The poisonings got national media attention in 1993, when Nelson Mandela visited one of the Thor workers lying comatose in a hospital while he was campaigning for the presidency.

In 1998 the families of the deceased eventually sued Thor in British courts and were awarded almost two million dollars.

Summerton was part of a second class action lawsuit involving 20 workers, which successfully sued Thor in British court last year.

During the trial evidence revealed that Thor may have moved part of its British plant to South Africa after the British government expressed concern about the high levels of mercury in blood and urine samples taken from workers in Britain.

While Summerton was pleased that he saw his day in court, he says the settlement of about 400,000 dollars to be split amongst the 20 plaintiffs was not good enough to cover all the medical expenses.

After the Mandela government shut the plant down in 1994, two years later a three-person commission of inquiry found that the government shared responsibility for the problems at Thor because of their failure to properly monitor and regulate the companies activities.

But environmental groups, including Greenpeace, Earthlife Africa and the Environmental Justice Networking Forum were upset by the commission’s proposed solution to incinerate the remaining waste on site.

“South Africa does not have hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a facility that could adequately dispose of the waste,” says Bobby Peek, director of the South African environmental group groundWork.

“The waste needs to be returned to sender,” he says.

Barrie Longden, managing director of Guernica Chemicals here in Cato Ridge says that it fully accepts the commission’s findings and is now awaiting further details on what should be done with the waste.

“It certainly won’t be reprocessed here,” he told IPS. “The plant has corroded and deteriorated.”

In response to an environmental campaign to get the waste shipped back to the United States and Europe, Borden Chemicals said it had originally decided to ship the waste to South Africa because it thought of reprocessing of the waste as “recycling” and better than putting the substance in a landfill.

The company said that when it became aware that Thor had stockpiled some of the waste it sent South Africa, Borden immediately recalled a shipment that was in transit.

“It is really something best addressed by Thor Chemicals or the South African government,” says a statement by Borden.

While the government decides what to do with the waste, Summerton says the area around the closed reprocessing plant remains contaminated. He blames the ministry of the environment for not trying to find out from workers where waste was buried so that it can be cleaned up.

“The government is dragging its feet while it should be asking workers where the mercury waste was dumped,” says Summerton. “When is the government going to do something about this?”

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