‘We can’t breathe’

Meleney Naik took this photograph of the New England Road landfill site still well ablaze last night, from the Nedbank Plaza highrise in Scottsville. PHOTO: Meleney Naik
Meleney Naik took this photograph of the New England Road landfill site still well ablaze last night, from the Nedbank Plaza highrise in Scottsville. PHOTO: Meleney Naik

Pietermaritzburg was left choking in toxic smoke again on Tuesday when the New England Road Landfill Site caught fire. 

Environmental consulting company Surg Sut quickly moved to say they believe the fire could have been an act of sabotage.

Schools and businesses closed early while those living around the dump were left with sore throats and nosebleeds due to the smoke.

The inferno ironically erupted just a few hours after Surg Sut told The Witness about the measures they have put in place since being appointed to turn around the situation at the site and address the compliance issues that were blamed for past fires.

On Tuesday the company’s spokesperson, Ntokozo Hlela, said they were just as shocked by the fire, and that preliminary reports indicated that it was man-made. “Obviously the investigation is ongoing because we don’t want this to ever happen again,” said Hlela.

“At this point we are not sure whether it’s an act of sabotage because it happened right on the active cell [where dumping is currently taking place].”

There were allegations that there might have been some negligence in terms of securing the site after Surg Sut cut ties with Magma Security and replaced them with Ntonkulu Protection Consultants a few week ago, however, Hlela denied this. “The security protocols that were followed when Magma was here haven’t changed and some of the guards that we have now worked for Magma so they are familiar with the site and they know what must be done,” she said.

Hlela said the challenge on Tuesday was that they did not know how deep the fire was underneath the waste, so the firefighters extinguished it on top but it continued burning underneath and then erupted elsewhere. She said they anticipated that the fire would be completely out by the end of of Tuesday.

Waste-pickers also said they would not be surprised if the dump was deliberately set on fire in an act of sabotage. They said even if a chemical substance had been sneaked in, Monday’s temperature was not hot enough to ignite it as was the case in previous fires.

“We know that the municipality is going to blame us like they’ve always done in the past, but we have no reason to burn the dump because that would be sabotaging ourselves. It would be like taking our money and setting it on fire,” said one.

Another said it would be better once Surg Sut had mounted surveillance cameras in the active cells because they could have footage of what happened.

Earlier yesterday the waste-pickers said they were grateful to the firefighters who saved their recyclables from the fire by digging a trench around where the pile sat, to protect it.

However, by 5 pm The Witness was told that their recyclables had later been consumed by the fire.

Msunduzi was caught without enough firefighters to fight the blaze as some had either been infected with Covid-19 or quarantined for coming into contact with a positive case.

An uMgungundlovu District Municipality firefighter who spoke to The Witness on Tuesday morning said they were working under harsh conditions. He said they did not have enough resources to fight the inferno, which was spreading across the dump.

He said the smoke was so thick that it even blocked out the sun, leaving them in clouds of dark smog.

“Everything has just come to a standstill. There about 15 of us on the ground at the moment but we’re all just standing because the two water tankers went for a refill. The municipality is [very] disorganised. How many dump fires have there been but still we are never prepared for the next one,” he said.

Municipal spokesperson Thobeka Mafumbatha said the City called for additional assistance from uMgungundlovu District Municipality, and the national Department of Environment Affairs also approved the involvement of the Working on Fire team to help put out the blaze. She said they were still investigating the cause of the fire. “We apologise to all residents of Msunduzi and the communities that are directly affected by this. Any inconvenience is regrettable,” she said.

Friday’s fire came as the City was still battling its way out of a non-compliance notice and a criminal case opened by the KZN Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (EDTEA) over its poor management of the landfill site.

MEC for EDTEA Nomusa Dube-Ncube said she sent inspectors to the site and would issue a statement once she received an update from them.

“The priority at this stage is the residents who should be protected. I have also called for the mobilisation of resources in order to deal with the fire. The inspectors on site have confirmed that firefighters from Msunduzi, uMgungundlovu­, eThekwini Metro and Working on Fire are on site collectively working to extinguish the fire.”

LOCALS FED UP WITH APOLOGIES

Annoyed residents took to The Witness Facebook page to voice their concerns about the dump site blaze.

Nomcebo Bhelekazi Mbele said: “I’m getting sick just looking at these pictures.”

Kate Watts: “Apology not accepted. Tell your stories to the lawyers coming for you. We’ve had enough of our health being endangered.”

Kim Mackay Gouweloos: “They close their offices because the dump is on fire! Seriously the deeds office has closed AGAIN because the dump is on fire. They have been closed so much because of corona cases and now they close because of the dump!”

Jesse Feldman: “After saying they were well prepared and guarded against future fires in the paper and now this ...”

Kerry McKay: “So much for the article in #TheWitness about there being no more fires!”

Norma Wiggill: “Yesterday they were so full of confidence about the safety etc .... Today it backfired 100% .....”

Nandi Stapelberg: “They always apologise when it happens but nothing gets done after the fires are out.”

Desrae Alex Stanley: “Explains the headache I woke up with, and still have ... Imagine how much worse this would make it for people with COVID, or COPD or ASTHMA ...”

Lee Scheepers: “We as the city need to take a combined stand & civil action for the municipality to listen. Where are the leaders? We are all tired of the apologies we need accountability!”

Storm Donaldson: “It has even reached Albert Falls and beyond.”

Rodger Ferguson: “Cry Wolf! The dump has been dysfunctional and in a state of perpetual crisis for a decade or more. Platitudes and promises of decisive action ring hollow...."

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