Send Thor waste back where it came from, say campaigners

2008-01-09 00:00

Environmental watchdog organisation groundWork is firm in its stance that chemicals that have accumulated at the Guernica (previously Thor Chemicals) plant in Cato Ridge must be shipped back to Europe for safe disposal and that no attempts should be made to remediate the toxic waste at Cato Ridge.

Speaking to The Witness yesterday, Bobby Peek of groundWork said that the conditions for processing the waste materials in Europe are far safer than those in South Africa, and that legal enforcement of the issues around toxic matter is more effective there.

This comes after the department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) issued Guernica with a directive in March 2003 to carry out remediation of the mercury contamination at their site in Cato Ridge.

Guernica have now contracted WSP Environmental to carry out an authorisation process for decommissioning its obsolete facilities before the outstanding work takes place on the site.

The process also encompasses the remediation of toxic waste, which is currently stored in drums in three warehouses there.

Peek said that although the group has not yet formally objected to the latest plan to recycle the waste material, "everyone knows we will".

"The historic use of mercury in the process at Cato Ridge has resulted in approximately 2 700 tons of stored mercury waste comprising solid, sludges and liquid wastes remaining on the site," reports a background information document sent out by WSP ahead of the work.

Mercury contaminates soil, debris (buildings and equipment), ground and surface water also need to be rehabilitated.

In addition to mercury, other contaminants were also found in the waste, including metals (arsenic, cadmium, lead, chromium, nickel), aromatic hydrocarbons, chlorobenzenes and halogenated volatiles.

Based on findings by DEAT and technical assessments, thermal retorting has been found to be the best way of dealing with the waste. This process involves heating the waste at a reduced pressure to the point where mercury volatilises and separates from its solid state.

"The vapours are then allowed to cool, causing elemental mercury to condense out. Emissions from the retorting process are scrubbed in order to eliminate mercury vapours being emitted to the atmosphere."

The document also reports that the majority of the claims relating to mercury poisoning at Thor have been settled, but that some have not been resolved as a result of insufficient evidence to substantiate the claims.

Guernica maintains that returning the wastes to its overseas originators was considered, but the source of the majority of the waste is unknown.

They also said in the report that the Basel Convention on the control of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal "posed a fatal flaw".

But Peek maintains that waste can be moved, if this is done in a manner that is "safe and secure".

Thor was the topic of numerous press reports locally and internationally and a flurry of compensation claims after mercury contamination of soil and groundwater occurred as a result of the historical operations on the site.

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