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26 Sep 2009 06:50
Strike Matsepe used his life savings to buy a small plot of land near the country’s biggest steel mill, hoping it would become a thriving farm in his old age. Now, weathered and sick, the 80-year-old has had to abandon his dream—the land and ground water are so polluted his cattle have died and crops failed.
On Friday, ArcelorMittal SA, the world’s largest steel marker, dismissed allegations of severe environmental damage and unethical business practices at the mill.
In 2002, the company took over the 67-year-old plant that residents and environmental groups say has polluted their lives.
Company officials acknowledge there is air and water pollution but say that emissions comply with legislation and that clean-up operations are under way.
Nearly 500 families used to live on the farmlands known as Steel Valley, opposite the mill’s mountainous waste dump. Only four families, including Matsepe’s, continue to hold on to land.
A series of legal challenges and out-of-court settlements have resulted in buyouts of farms, and many people have moved away.
“This is a David and Goliath story,” sociologist Jacklyn Cock said. “This is about the power of the corporation. ArcelorMittal has had an impact not only on air and water quality but people have lost their livelihoods and lives.”
Matsepe, who bought the farm in 1992, has refused efforts by the steel mill to buy his land. He wants the polluters brought to justice and for him to be adequately compensated.
“If I die now, my wife will get nothing because my pension is gone and my cattle. Everything I worked for is gone now, and my children will get nothing of the labour of my hands,” Matsepe said.
The 2 300 hectare Vanderbijlpark plant is situated in the country’s industrial heartland about 70km south of Johannesburg. Smoke billows from its chimney stacks and fine black dust blows from the dump.
Environmental experts say ground water has been contaminated by toxins that cause disease and birth defects. The company has also faced charges of price-fixing, and a case relating to market collusion is pending.
Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal is the target of a global campaign by environmental groups to ensure European multinationals are liable for the social and environmental impacts of their subsidiaries.
On Thursday about 20 former residents of the valley gathered in a makeshift shed on Matsepe’s property to recount their experiences to a group of international journalists and environmental activists.
They spoke about how animals were born deformed and how tea would foam when they poured milk into it. Clothes would be bleached of their colors after washing; tins of food and even metal window frames would rust away.
“My oldest daughter has three different kinds of cancer. All my children are sick, and what is really frightening is that my grandchildren are also sick. This is from, I believe, where we stayed,” said Joey Cock (71).
At a later meeting, former employers spoke of terrible burns and injuries, and unresolved compensation and pension claims. Some have been retrenched and face eviction from their homes. Others stay without water or electricity in rundown hostels owned by the company.
Many spoke of intimidation and said they felt used—like a “tool.”
The company denies it has neglected its employers and says many improvements have been made—and more are planned—to reduce pollution.
On a tour of the site Friday, reporters were shown where old dams storing effluent water and other waste disposal sites are being rehabilitated at a cost of about $57-million. There also are
plans to cap the slag heap and cover it with soil.
ArcelorMittal’s chief executive, Nku Nyembezi-Heita, was quick to distance the company from any damage caused by activities of the mill before the new management took over. She acknowledged that Steel Valley is an emotional issue but said there are no immediate plans to rehabilitate the land.
“Where we have caused harm, our duty is to take responsibility,” she said.
Observers charge that the government is reluctant to take action against the powerful multinational. The company’s owner, Lakshmi Mittal, the world’s third richest person, sits on a special presidential economic advisory committee. - Sapa-AP
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