Environment Ministry backs Thor’s sound work

A secret memo to the cabinet promotes the `sensible’ operations at the Thor Chemicals toxic waste plant in Natal. Eddie Koch reports

THE Department of Environment Affairs has sent a secret memorandum to the cabinet saying the Thor Chemicals toxic waste plant in Natal is doing “sound” work — though a commission set up by Environment Minister Dawie de Villiers is yet to examine health problems at the controversial factory.

United States authorities are prosecuting an American firm for illegally sending thousands of tons of dangerous waste to Thor. The plant was closed down in April this year after health officials found it was causing air pollution in the Cato Ridge area near Pietermaritzburg and causing a health risk to local residents.

An independent commission of inquiry was recently set up by the Environment Ministry to investigate how best to handle some 4 500 tons of hazardous mercury waste that is now stockpiled on Thor’s premises.

But Weekly Mail & Guardian sources say the ministry is now suggesting that the factory can be reopened. A secret memo to the cabinet allegedly says Thor’s operations are “sensible” and that the factory simply reprocesses waste materials and extracts mercury from these for useful industrial purposes.

De Villiers’ method of dealing with the Thor issue has also enraged MPs in the kwaZulu/Natal region. Ina Cronje, who heads up the provincial “portfolio” committee responsible for environmental issues, met the minister this week to complain that he had failed to consult the provincial legislature before appointing his commission.

“We are concerned that the terms of reference of the commission have been restricted to technical matters regarding the disposal of waste at the plant. We are demanding that the whole question of where the material came from in the first place be looked at. We also want representatives from the province to be appointed to the commission,” said Cronje.

De Villiers and his deputy general, Colin Cameron, had agreed in a meeting this week to consider these demands, she said. Cronje added she was not aware of De Villiers’ cabinet memo.

Earthlife Africa, an organisation which helped to expose environmental pollution in the Natal Midlands by Thor Chemicals, has instructed its lawyers to file an application under the new constitution for the contents of the secret cabinet memo to be made public.

“Section 23 of the constitution states that all interested parties have to be informed of administrative action that affects them. We believe the minister is obliged to inform us of what he plans to do at Thor,” said Earthlife representative Chris Albertyn.

The Environmental Protection Agency in the US wants to slap a multimillion dollar fine on an American firm, Borden Chemicals and Plastics, for exporting “hundreds of thousands of tons” to Thor Chemicals in defiance of US law. The US authorities say very little of this waste material was recycled at the factory and was incinerated instead, causing air and water contamination in the surrounding areas.

A director and two senior officials from Thor are facing charges after two workers died, allegedly from exposure to high levels of mercury at the factory. Another worker has been in a coma for three years and 28 others have the symptoms of mercury poisoning.

Environment organisations are also up in arms because the department has sent a letter to all provincial governments asking them to help set up a committee that will screen imports of hazardous materials for recycling in South Africa. The letter indicates a number of countries have “seriously and urgently” made inquiries about exporting wastes to this country.

Last week a coalition of environment groups, trade unions and civic organisations delivered a 25 000-signature petition to De Villiers that opposes any form of waste imports.

* The Department of Environment Affairs was unavailable for comment.

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