/ 10 February 2003

Chernobyl of the Northern Cape

An out-of-court settlement between Gencor and asbestos victims last week does not cover cleaning up places where people live and children play — so the effects of the killer dust could continue indefinitely.

Gencor undertook to pay out more than R460-million to compensate sufferers of asbestos-related diseases. This money will go into a trust fund to pay for treatment and to compensate families who lose breadwinners.

But the bill for cleaning up the asbestos mines remains unpaid, and in villages in large parts of the Northern Cape and Limpopo people live in buildings made of asbestos and drive on asbestos roads, while children play on dumps of asbestos fibre.

Government representatives met Gencor directors on the following day to discuss liability for an environmental clean-up. Neither party was prepared to put a price tag on the operation.

Elize Swart, the Department of Minerals and Energy director in charge of the rehabilitation of mines, says the issue must be cleared up before Gencor unbundles.

”We have identified that they have a liability, and we regard it as urgent.”

Lawyers representing asbestos victims took the Gencor shell company to court last year to prevent it distributing a $2-billion stake in platinum holdings to shareholders before it settled the asbestos claims. Gencor representatives say that now the claims have been settled, the unbundling can begin.

”While it would be improper to comment on the content of the meeting [with the government officials], Gencor’s approach to issues flowing from its investments has consistently been that it acts responsibly, prudently and reasonably,” says Gencor representative Francois Baird in response to inquiries about the company’s responsibility for cleaning up.

There are a number of legal uncertainties around enforcing an environmental liability. For this reason, the government controversially agreed to waive any claims against Cape plc for environmental rehabilitation when the British multinational settled its case with about 7 000 South African asbestos victims in January 2002.

Cape agreed to pay out a total of £21-million over 10 years, but the company has since breached the agreement. The waiver, with the agreement, has now lapsed.

It has been estimated that the rehabilitation of the asbestos mines and tailing dumps will take at least 10 to 20 years, and will cost hundreds of millions of rands.

Community groups and NGOs are equally concerned about secondary sources of pollution, such as building materials and small dumps of asbestos left in schools.

The Environmental Justice Networking Forum’s Limpopo chairperson, Zac Mabiletja, gave an indication of the scale of secondary pollution during hearings on asbestos held by Parliament’s environment and tourism portfolio committee.

He said an inspection of schools in the Mafefe region of Limpopo showed seven of 15 school buildings contained the fibre. Asbestos was not mixed with any other substance when put on to the roads, so fibres still line the streets.

In Mafefe, all the mills were built on flood plains so that the floods would take away the unwanted asbestos tailings. Even rehabilitated mine dumps have been washed away in floods, taking the asbestos into the water system and polluting rivers.

Recent research has shown that 635 houses in Mafefe were built with either asbestos bricks or plaster. When these houses are improved or demolished, there is no dumping ground or training on how to handle the bricks.

Environmental exposure to asbestos fibres can cause mesothelioma, a cancer that gave asbestos dust the name ”killer dust”. It is a fatal tumour of the lining of the lungs or other parts of the body, and kills rapidly and very painfully.

Richard Spoor, a lawyer who represented the claimants against Gencor, says children are particularly vulnerable to mesothelioma. The disease can take up to 40 years to manifest itself, so the effects of unrehabilitated environments could roll on indefinitely.

”The environmental scale of the disaster we are seeing unfold in the Northern Cape is on a level with the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, in terms of impact, spread and longevity,” Spoor says. Since last September, five of the 1 600 claimants he represents in the Northern Cape have died.

Asbestos fibres can travel up to 100km in the wind, and even minimal exposure can prove fatal. Internationally renowned photographer David Goldblatt started photographing victims after a friend died of mesothelioma despite never going near a mine. It is believed she picked up the disease from rubbing a blue asbestos rock ornament that she kept in her home.

”What we have seen of the disease so far is just the tip of the iceberg. The consequences of the mining companies” actions are going to be with us for an untold future,” says Goldblatt.

The environment and tourism portfolio committee is busy drawing up recommendations for Parliament based on the hearings. At the close of the session, Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Mohammed Valli Moosa indicated that legislation — perhaps banning asbestos and enforcing environmental accountability — could be in the pipeline.


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