Sunday Tribune (South Africa), January 07, 2007

Bayer South Africa: Poison showdown looms

The issue of reparation for the dozens of Merebank families affected by a toxic chemical that surfaced in the Durban South area nearly two years ago will be the ideal chance to test the country's environmental laws, says a law expert.

This follows the eThekwini Municipality's discovery of hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing chemical, during excavations in 2004 to replace water meters in the vicinity of the Bayer/Lanxess factory in Tomango Road.

"The Merebank chrome contamination case is perfectly positioned to test South Africa's much-vaunted environmental legislation," said environmental law specialist and attorney Jeremy Ridl, who is acting on behalf of the community.

"It will be a great pity if this issue is swept under the carpet, or is not put to the test because of bureaucratic ineptitude.

"For the residents of Merebank, who for too long have been on the receiving end of industrial pollution in all forms, perhaps it is time to compel a better performance by the environmental authorities.

"This is the community's mission for the new year. There appears to be no interest in the financial implications for the community arising from the contamination," Ridl said.
"Aside from the potential health impacts that may give rise to claims for compensation, there is the very real loss of property values caused by the contamination.

"The distrust of the community in the process extends so far that they believe that the officials concerned are colluding with Bayer/Lanxess to 'cover up' evidence that will support their legal claims at a later stage," said Ridl.

In June last year, Bayer/ Lanxess announced a R50-million remediation plan to pump and treat the toxic chemical that had polluted the ground-water under dozens of Merebank homes.

This is expected to take more than 10 years.

This was followed by the formation of a task team chaired by Selva Mudaly of the city's Environmental Health Department. On the team are representatives of Bayer/Lanxess, the departments of Water Affairs and Forestry and Agriculture and Environmental Affairs, and the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance. In correspondence with MEC for agriculture , Mtholephi Mthimkhulu, and the health department, Ridl criticised the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs for not taking a leadership role.

Ridl said if Mthimkhulu did not intervene, he would have no option but to advise the community that the matter be taken to court.

"A year-and-a-half down the track, the position is that the selection of experts to undertake a literature study as a precursor to a full health study, have yet to be appointed."

When talking informally with consultants and Bayer representatives after a meeting, Ridl said he had realised there was confusion over who was "the affected community".

"It was made clear to me that only the residents whose homes are above the identified plume are treated as affected," he said.

"This explains the perception of the members of the community outside of the plume . . . that only some members of the community have been singled out for attention . . .

"The presence of a dangerous contaminant, irrespective of its actual threat to human or environmental health, has a substantial effect on the community at large.

"It has a serious detrimental impact on the 'sense of place' of Merebank as a residential area. . . . The total impact of the pollution condition will not be known or be capable of assessment until all of the studies are complete," said Ridl.

In a reply to Ridl's letter, Dr J Mjwara of the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs said, "I appreciate all the issues raised in your letter. I can only admit my department has not been as active as it should have been on this issue.

"A shortage of human resources can partly be implicated for this, but I do not think that one can stretch that excuse far. Suffice it to say that henceforth the department will increase its participation.

"Meanwhile, my office will arrange with the municipality and the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry to map a way forward," said Mjwara.

Mudaly said a meeting of all the government departments had been held in December. Progress had been noted and decisions taken on the way forward.

But he said the resolutions would have to be ratified by the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs. (By Juggie Naran)

The Mercury (South Africa), June 12, 2007

Residents protest outside chemical plant

Residents of Merebank have threatened to disrupt operations at chemical company LanXess if the company does not meet them to discuss pollution problems.

The residents claimed during a protest march on Monday that the company was responsible for some of the pollution problems that the area was facing.

During the march, which ended at LanXess's premises, the residents asked to be included in discussions and decisions which, they said, impacted directly on their lives.

They said that if this demand was not met, they would picket outside the company gates, blocking access to the plant.

The marchers, who gave the company 10 days to respond, also warned that they would take legal action against the company.
IFP councillor Ibrahim Shaik said that a task team that was investigating pollution in the area had only appointed two representatives from the community which, he contended, inadequately represented the locals.

The management of the company, which has links to international chemical giant Bayer, is also accused of sowing divisions by refusing to meet the community in a public arena. Instead, the company has opted to meet individual families.

"This divide-and-rule strategy is not going to work. We must be addressed as the community so that we can share experiences on pollution and speak with one voice," said Shaik.

LanXess representative Johan Lotter referred all queries to Margaret Meyer at the company's Johannesburg office, who was unavailable at the time of going to print.

further information:
Sunday Times: Suburb hit by cancer scare
Fatal chemical found in Durban groundwater