A civic group has threatened legal action against the authorities if they fail to tackle toxic problems at a Pietermaritzburg landfill site. Fatima Khan and Matthew Hattingh report.
First published by GroundUp
The New England Road landfill — the main disposal site for the city and greater Pietermaritzburg area – is near the N3 highway close to Sobantu, one of the oldest townships in South Africa.
Sobantu residents complain of chest infections after landfill fires break out.
Schools in neighbouring suburbs have been forced to close when the fumes are too much.
People in neighbouring suburbs also shut up their homes, closing all doors and windows – or even evacuate – until there is relief.
This has been happening for several years but has been getting worse, said environmental lawyer, Jeremy Ridl.
“In Sobantu, pollution from the landfill fires has exacerbated pre-existing health problems to the point that several people have died,” said Ridl, who is leading the planned legal action on behalf of a recently convened civic group.
This is after numerous efforts by schools and others in the city to get the Msunduzi municipality to deal decisively with the dump.
Fires and other problems at the dump have been documented by The Witness as far back as 2017, with a spate of major fires in the past six months.
Making matters worse, the municipal fire department has been hamstrung by staff shortages and an ageing vehicle fleet prone to breakdowns – an issue also frequently reported by The Witness.
In Athlone, about 10km away, and as far afield as Hilton, residents have reported smelling fumes often take to social media to vent their fury.
Residents in these areas have also written letters to the municipality demanding action.
Three schools have now banded together with others under the #LovePmb banner to take legal action.
The group has briefed Ridl to seek an urgent High Court interdict if engagement with the KwaZulu-Natal Premier, Sihle Zikalala, and the MEC for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs, Nomusa Dube-Ncube, fail to deliver desired results.
In a recent letter to Zikalala, Ridl demanded the provincial government provide a detailed plan for remedial work at the landfill, including budgets and timeframes for completing the work. Failing this, #LovePmb would seek a court order compelling the government to do so.
#LovePMB wants the state to move the landfill to a new site within the next five years.
It also wants a monitoring committee established and monthly progress reports.
Ridl said some of these actions had since been taken, like the preparation of a remedial action plan.
But this had yet to be made public.
Similarly, a monitoring committee had been established, but the schools had not been invited to serve on it.
In an earlier letter, Simon Moore, the principal of St John’s, a private girls school, advised parents of the school’s plan to deal with the crisis.
“The school leadership, parents and staff have, quite simply, had enough of a situation which is unacceptable, with the municipality’s response to it having been inadequate and ineffective,” wrote Moore.
“We believe we have an important voice and a responsibility to act. There are schools in our community who do not have resources to act and we need to act with and for them,” said Moore.
“We do not shy away from the reality that with our privilege comes responsibility. Not only do we have the duty to be concerned about the health of our pupils and staff, but we also have the voice to speak up for those who have no means nor platform to address the risks they and their communities face.”
He said that if the government’s response to the civic group’s demands was positive, “it may be possible to find solutions that do not involve court action.”
“Government and community stakeholders should have one common goal – the safe disposal of waste within the municipal area,” said Moore
Chris Whyte, a specialist consultant in integrated waste management and waste beneficiation, said the landfill site needed to be closed soon and a viable alternative found.
“We currently don’t have a landfill – we have a dump, and all the negative connotations that go with the term,” he said.
Whyte felt that many municipalities had a skewed perspective on landfill sites and the crisis in Pietermaritzburg was a symptom of this.
“Government should stop seeing landfill as a service delivery issue, and start seeing it as an economic development issue,” he said.
“The Pietermaritzburg landfill could be an economic opportunity instead of an environmental nightmare,” said Whyte.
But the New England landfill, in its present state, was an “economic roadblock” preventing the municipality from attracting investments to the city.
Whyte identified a litany of bad management practices at New England landfill which he felt could easily be put right, but as things stood were leading to fires and other environmental problems.
- Little or no daily compacting and covering of new waste with soil, with equipment usually broken or awaiting repairs;
- Poor or unscrupulous access control resulting in frequent unloading of unauthorised or unsupervised vehicles on the site; and
- The site weighbridge, an important tool in site management and a fund generator, was often broken or bypassed by unscrupulous transporters.
The Msunduzi municipality and the Premier’s Office had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.
The municipality was placed under administration by the KwaZulu-Natal government in April 2019, amid claims of corruption, mismanagement and a continuing decline in the delivery of public services.
Later last year, Dube-Mncube, in her capacity as Environment MEC, called for an investigation into air pollution and environmental damage.
The department had previously issued the municipality with a pre-compliance notice and later a compliance notice, directing it to take steps to correct the situation.
In a follow-up statement on October 2019 statement, Dube-Mncube said: “Our main focus is to ensure we assist residents so they do not suffer from smoke inhalation … We will not tolerate any breaches and non-compliance with the National Environmental Management Waste Act.”
The Act provides for criminal enforcement.
“Over the next few days, we will be consulting with relevant authorities to ascertain exactly how to penalize those found to be in breach of environmental laws. It cannot be business as usual.”
But Dube-Mncube’s tough talk does not wash with some commentators.
Ross Strachan, a DA city councillor, said it was ironic that the failure and financial collapse of the municipality happened under Dube-Mncube while she was MEC of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs.
Strachan, whose ward covers the areas of Prestbury, Clarendon, Napierville, Signal Hill, Blackridge and Sunnyside, said widespread social media commentary on the dump was a measure of citizens’ desperation and desire for action.
Andrew Simpson, a #LovePmb supporter, environmental scientist and air quality specialist, said the organisation was planning to buy or lease monitors to measure air quality at participating schools in Scottsville, the Sobantu community and other affected areas.
This would also be used for pollution early warning.
He said this was necessary as there were fears that landfill fires release toxins, including carcinogenic compounds into the atmosphere.
St Charles College, Epworth School and Save Sobantu, are among those supporting the proposed legal action.
Allen van Blerk, principal of St Charles College, told Roving Reporters that the school had “committed itself to winning the war against the landfill site’s current location” and in the interim to “enforce acceptable standards of management”.
“We identified the need to engage in a series of serious legal battles, exercising our civil rights and enforcing the public responsibilities of local, provincial and national government to care for the welbeing of the people who live in Pietermaritzburg,” Van Blerk said.
For many people in Pietermaritzburg, serious landfill fires with winds and hot weather fanning up new blazes in October were the proverbial last straw.
Rain brought some respite in early February, but residents fear that with summer far from over, there will be more fires choking surrounding areas with acrid fumes and smoke. – Additional reporting Fred Kockott, Roving Reporters
- This story was also published by the Daily Maverick
Fatima Khan is a freelance writer enrolled on Roving Reporters training programme, Developing Environmental Watchdogs.
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