/ 16 January 2007

Illegal dumping raises concerns in Jo’burg

More than 3 500kg of toxic waste has been illegally dumped in a landfill site in Walkerville, south of Johannesburg, since late December.

Working in the scorching heat at the Walkerville de Deur landfill site on Tuesday, the IFRT Spill Response team — dressed in task masks, protective rubber gloves and boots — had to plough through metres of stinking garbage to locate two bags, weighing about 50kg each, of Fluorosilicato de Sodio, a white powder used in tiny amounts for water purification and rat poison.

On December 28, members of the Gauteng Conservancy Association (GCA) found 78 bags marked with skull emblems at the same site, indicating that the bags are extremely hazardous.

The Midvaal Council and the GCA possess documents that point to a waste-disposal company in Vereeniging, which the council and GCA suspect is responsible for the illegal dumping.

”None of them [waste-disposal companies] are taking responsibility. The people who we think it is are denying it,” said Midvaal ward councillor Rob Jones.

Fines for illegal dumping range from R1 500 to R20 000, amounts which Jones says are ”nothing to these companies”.

According to Jones, it will cost the council in the region of R350 000 to clean up the 80 odd bags of hazardous material.

Environmentalists are worried that the toxins could make their way into a wetland near the landfill (which supplies many residences and farms in the area with borehole water) after finding bags that had been ripped open, a situation which may be exacerbated by Johannesburg’s recent heavy rainfall.

Chairperson of the GCA, Ivan Parkes, said that rainwater flowing from the dump drains into surrounding trenches, from where the water can reach Varkensfonteinspruit, Kliprivier and eventually the Vaal River.

”There is the possibility of the poison going into underground aquifers that fill our boreholes. After the rains we’ve had it’s very possible that all that poison could have been washed into our water system,” said Parkes.

Wessel Slabbert, head of IFRT Spill Response, said the toxins needed to be removed and destroyed.

Parkes told the Mail & Guardian Online on Tuesday that it was even dangerous to inhale or touch the powder. ”If you read on the bag, it advises you to see a physician if you come into contact with it,” he said.

The spill-response team bagged the toxins in thick plastic bags, sealed the openings tightly with wire and were to dispose of the bags at Thermopower [facility for the treatment and disposal of hazardous waste] in Olifantsfontein, where the toxins will be incinerated.

There were also signs of medical toxic waste around the site. The M&G Online found two syringes littered among piles of trash as well as fibre glass, which is considered a material that needs to be disposed of at a special toxic-waste dump.

It costs about R300 per kilogram to dump toxins in a specialised toxic-waste dump, according to Parkes.

”It’s cheaper for people to dump everything here. Everybody takes a chance and hides their harmful waste here.”

Jones said that after each December illegal medical waste is often found. He said it comes from small clinics and chemists around the area.

An officer from Wastehub (a police unit within the City of Johannesburg’s environmental department) who arrived at the landfill on Tuesday afternoon said waste dumping is a ”very big issue” and the council and the police must work together to form a joint prosecution against illegal dumpers.

”We have to monitor this and put it in place … It’s polluting everything here; there’s bird life here, there’s everything,” he said.