Shock pollution findings at Highveld Steel

A swoop by environmental inspectors on the giant Highveld Steel and Vanadium Corporation’s Vanchem plant outside Witbank in Mpumalanga has uncovered shocking levels of air, ground and water pollution.

Environmental management inspectors, better known as the Green Scorpions, carried out a compliance inspection at the plant at the end of August this year.

In a statement on Thursday, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism said this had revealed “a series of non-compliances with environmental legislation and permits”.

These included excessive emissions of sulphur dioxide, with between 40 and 60 tonnes of the gaseous compound—one of the primary causes of acid rain—emitted by the plant every day.

Inspectors had also found “serious exceedances of permit-emissions limits for ammonia, up to 15 times the limit, and particulates [dust] up to 27 times the limit”.

There was also “significant contamination of groundwater, linked to both the unlined and unpermitted hazardous waste dump on site”. The latter was hazardous because it contained vanadium, a heavy metal.

Inspectors had further found there was no separation of storm water and process water at the plant.

Environmental affairs said both Vanchem and its mother company, Highveld Steel and Vanadium Corporation—whose website says its vision is to “create superior value and benefits on a sustainable basis ... for all stakeholders”—had been given until October 22 to respond to the inspection findings.

In the interim, the department, together with water affairs and the local department of agriculture and land affairs, as well as affected municipalities, were “considering appropriate enforcement action”.

The inspection forms part of a national environmental compliance campaign, dubbed Operation Ferro, in which the Green Scorpions are targeting iron and steel and ferroalloy industries around the country.

The findings at Vanchem followed serious breaches of environmental regulations uncovered at other plants earlier this year.

These included Arcelor Mittal’s steel plant in Vereeniging, where, among other things, there was continued dumping of hazardous waste, despite repeated instructions from authorities to stop, and “significant and serious” pollution of surface and groundwater with phenols, iron, oil fluoride and other hazardous substances.

It was also found that Assmang’s ferromanganese operation at Cato Ridge had “significant” uncontrolled dust emissions, and showed “serious non-compliance” with a hazardous waste site permit.

The department said iron and steel and ferroalloy industries had been prioritised for inspection because their industrial processes could contribute significantly to pollution if not mitigated and managed properly.

“Although we expected to find some non-compliance at the sites we have inspected thus far, we are taken aback at the levels of non-compliance we are identifying in the iron and steel and ferroalloy industry sector.

“Many of the operating companies are extremely profitable multinationals who have access to all the information and resources they require to come into compliance with environmental legislation.

“However, it appears that they have chosen to disregard their obligations to the law and the environment and people affected by their operations,” the department said.

It noted that although the companies had “environmental improvement plans”, these did not address issues of non-compliance.

According to reports, Highveld Steel and Vanadium Corporation is in the process of selling its Vanchem plant.—Sapa

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