Toxic waste sparks fires


Locals living close to the New England Road landfill site are warned of the possibility of more dump fires and toxic smoke if Msunduzi Municipality fails to regulate the dumping of “toxic” waste at the site.

From Saturday, Pietermaritzburg residents choked on thick clouds of smoke after a fire broke out at the dumpsite. A landfill staffer, who asked not to be named in fear of victimisation, told The Witness on Monday that the fire was ignited by a “candle-like substance” that is being dumped by factories at the site.

The staffer, along with several waste pickers, alleged that the fire started at a pile of the substance and spread to other parts of the dumpsite.

“The substance is dumped in piles and looks like building rubble or sand.

“We don’t know what it is exactly, but it looks and feels like remains from candles and oil all mixed together.

“When it gets too hot, the substance ignites and starts a fire. This is not the first landfill fire started by this substance. I believe the municipality is aware of this toxic substance but nothing is being done about it.

“If the municipality continues to ignore this, residents can expect more fires and noxious smoke as we head into summer,” said the staffer.

The heaps of the hazardous substances that is alleged to have caused the dumpsite fire which ignited on Saturday morning at the New England Road Landfill site. PHOTO: MOEKETSI MAMANE

A waste picker, who asked not to be named, said she witnessed the fire igniting from one of the piles of the substance. “Most of the landfill fires start from that substance. I think this fire is one of the biggest landfill fires I have ever witnessed. The smoke has been unbearable. On Saturday and Sunday, it was so bad that we couldn’t even see anything here.

“Many of the other waste pickers decided to abandon work and wait for the fire to be extinguished,” she said.

There were also reports that two young children, who live in makeshift homes at the fence of the landfill site, had to be taken to hospital at the weekend. It is believed the children started vomiting after inhaling smoke from the dumpsite fire.

Another waste picker, who also asked not to be named, told The Witness that glass bottles she and her colleagues have been gathering for the past month and a half were all destroyed in the fire.

“We are all devastated by this fire. Some of the waste pickers were reduced to tears because we were hoping to make a lot of money from the pile of bottles,” she said. The woman added that they also lost some of their belongings like clothes and shoes that they kept at the dumpsite.

When The Witness visited the dumpsite on Monday, many of the waste pickers were sitting on the heaps of garbage watching as the firefighters extinguished the dying flames of the fire. One firefighter, who did not want to be named, said by Monday morning the fire was under control as they had worked around the clock, since Saturday, to extinguish it. The fire was still smouldering late on Monday.

Another staffer told The Witness that they were also facing problems of there not being enough machinery to grade and flatten the heaps of garbage.

The staffer said there were two fairly new machines which were sitting idle at the site because the municipality told them there were no funds to fix them.

“Cogta [the Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Department] had lent us a few of their machines for a few months, but have taken most of them back.

“We now only have their three TLB machines, which don’t help much as they’re really small compared to the work needed to be done here.

“One Bomag machine was taken for repairs, but has been away for weeks now because the municipality does not have money to pay for the repair job,” said the staffer.

A broken-down machine has been sitting idle at the New England Road Landfill site for the past two years. 

Msunduzi Municipality’s spokesperson, Thobeka Mafumbatha, said the City was still investigating the cause of the fire and do not want to speculate.

She added that new machines were provided by Cogta, which led to major improvements to the site.

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