Is this the Cape’s Bhopal?

2011-03-05 16:22

Two weeks ago, 52-year-old Magdalene Hess was rushed to the Hottentots Holland Hospital in Somerset West, Western Cape, ­after suffering a ­severe attack of asthma.

“I could not breathe. I have regular attacks, but this was the worst. I could feel death coming for me,” she said as she lay recovering in the crowded ward.

She spent three days in the ICU.

Hess had never suffered from asthma before more than 16?000 tons of sulphur, stockpiled at the AECI chemical and explosives ­factory in Somerset West, ­ignited on December 16, 1995.

The blaze was estimated to have emitted 14?500 tons of sulphur ­dioxide in 21 hours. Thousands of residents of the poor working- class suburb of Macassar were evacuated and reports indicated that two men, both asthma sufferers, died as a ­result of the fumes.

Fifteen years later, Hess is one of thousands of residents of ­Macassar and adjacent Firgrove whose health has significantly ­deteriorated since the fire.

Anecdotal evidence points to an unusually high incidence of respiratory illnesses and skin and eye allergies plaguing residents since the fire.

Exposure to high levels of ­sulphur dioxide is known to be fatal and the levels of it in Macassar were at times measured at over the Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) level of 100 parts to a million.

And yet the affected Macassar residents are still struggling to get compensation from AECI, even though the company is alleged to have paid out millions to affected farmers in the area.

Residents say the farmers ­received immediate payouts.

“The farmers easily got R20?million for loss of crops and animals, but AECI’s lawyers struggle to give us R3?000 for the inconvenience. We are just brown people,” said vice-chair of the ­Macassar Community Forum, ­Albert Williams.

It would appear AECI moved to minimise compensation claims in the days after the disaster.

George Liddle, former chairperson of the now defunct Macassar Disaster Action Committee, said that in the days after the fire, AECI offered compensation to residents who came to its offices.

He said payouts ranged from R50 to R1?000 and recipients had to sign a waiver that relinquished their rights to submit any future claims. Most residents were ­unaware they were signing away their rights, he said.

“People just accepted cash with no legal advice. Some of these people were illiterate. One father ­accepted a few hundred rands for his entire household.”

In 1997 the Desai National Commission of Inquiry found ­AECI had been “casually negligent” as it had not taken any steps to assess the fire risk or establish precautionary measures. The ­Department of Trade and Industry, which owned the stockpile, was also found to have been ­negligent.

Liddle said the commission agreed that AECI would pay out a fixed fee of R3?000 to residents for inconvenience. Many are still waiting to receive their money.

In July last year, frustrated at the long wait, the Macassar Community Forum approached attorney Rob Green, the founder and chairperson of Family Law Clinics of South Africa.

Green said part of the problem may have been that the Macassar Disaster Action Committee had previously approached seven law firms and some residents retained their own lawyers, which may have caused overlaps and ­confusion.

The lawyers he was now approaching for clarity “were not ­being very co-operative”.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) conducted one set of follow-up medical evaluations from 2001 to 2003. Another UCT study published last year indicated that residents who had reported persistent lower and upper respiratory system disease after the fire had experienced significant deterioration in their health.

Despite the Desai Commission’s request that follow-up evaluations be carried out on the ­effects of the fire, no known recent follow-up ­environmental studies had been conducted in the affected areas.

Moses Randitsheni , the media liaison officer of the Department of Environmental ­Affairs, said nobody in the department was familiar with the case.

Asked for comment, Walkers Attorneys Incorporated director John O’ Leary, who acts for AECI and its insurer, said the matter could not be discussed due to legal processes.

AECI said it had nothing further to add, and no comment was forthcoming from the Department of Trade and Industry ­despite repeated requests for ­information.

– West Cape News

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