Living under a cloud of toxic poison

2010-07-11 10:31

A company running a medical waste treatment plant situated between Johannesburg and Pretoria faces criminal charges over its near “nuclear-level” toxic emissions that threaten the health and drinking water of millions of Gauteng ­residents.

On July 22, Thermopower Technology bosses will face nine charges relating to contraventions of the National Environment Management Act and the ­Environment Conservation Act in the Kempton Park Magistrates Court.

Thermopower stands accused of ­risking the health of close to 2.5?million people because of its highly toxic dioxins and mercury pollutants.

Environmental specialists Golder Associates, who ­compiled a dossier on the ­facility, warned that:

»?Almost half-a-million ­residents of Olifantsfontein, Tembisa and surrounding ­areas are inhaling highly cancerous dioxide fumes spewed into the air by Thermopower’ burning processes;

»?The entire water supply of Pretoria’s two million residents is threatened by the company’s non-compliance with stringent government protocols ­designed to protect South Africans and their ­environment.

Thermopower is currently facing ­serious legal sanction after a criminal investigation by ­inspectors of the department of environmental affairs (DEAT) uncovered alarming flaws in its compliance with the conditions of its permits.

Thermopower engineering manager Shaan Prithiraj ­declined a request for ­information about the DEAT investigation. The information, he said, “is highly confidential and is handled by our ­lawyers”.

The carcinogenic content of the dioxide emissions ­produced by Thermopower’s incinerator was “just below nuclear level”, explained Golder Associates specialist Dr Gwen Theron.

Golder Associates is an ­international firm specialising in environmental matters.

The firm, along with several other specialist firms, ­compiled the results of ­investigations of the company’s ­activities into a 200-page docket that was sent to the DEAT, the Gauteng premier and other officials.

Theron explained that ­Pretoria residents were equally likely to imbibe a deadly ­cocktail of toxins should spills occur.

Thermopower’s facility is situated directly above the dolomite system housing the aquifer from which Pretoria draws 300?million litres of water per day. This aquifer is also tapped by a company that supplies a high percentage of South Africa’s bottled water.

The aquifer water used by the residents of Pretoria, Theron said, was not ­reservoired but mixed with the rest of the city’s water before being dispensed to users.

Anything Thermopower spilled into the ground would end up in Pretoria’s drinking water with a “catastrophic” effect on the health of its residents, she warned.

The bad odours and fumes spewed by the company have been the focus of numerous complaints from the residents of Olifantsfontein, farmers and ­neighbouring factories since its establishment in 2004.

Residents of the suburbs ­directly adjacent to the facility told City Press that their familieas suffered health problems such as burning eyes and throats, and breathing problems.

They are very upset ­because the company ­applied to the Gauteng department of agriculture and rural development in 2006 for permits to extend the range of its activities.

Community leader ­Kgomotso Modiselle told City Press that the department had been fully informed by the residents of “what goes on” at Thermopower.

This department is key in ensuring the implementation of the Waste Act, which was approved in Parliament last year, and its stringent ­measures to protect both ­people and environment.

Modiselle said that the ­department has been sent ­petitions as well as the Golder Associates dossier, but has thus far done nothing to help the people affected by the fumes.

Spokesperson ­Makoko Lekola said his ­department “will keep the ­facility ­under close scrutiny and will inspect it again in the very near future”.

The residents of Olifantsfontein, Modiselle said, wanted Thermopower’s licence withdrawn ­because the managers of the facility routinely ignored a range of its legal obligations, including proper consultation with the community.

This also included an ­obligation to set up a ­monitoring committee of ­residents to keep a close eye on the company’s activities.

A request to Thermopower to provide the names and contact details of its monitoring committee has thus far remained ­unanswered.

However, Thermopower’s environmental assessment practitioner Dr Lorraine Hodge said a range of its air quality studies and emission reports were regularly submitted to relevant authorities and “they do not ­indicate that the community is adversely affected”.

According to Hodge, Thermopower adhered to European emission standards “which are much higher than South African standards”.

Public meetings, Hodge said, had been held and the ­community adjacent to the plant had attended them.

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