Residents near the Shongweni landfill, west of Durban, say the complex emits suffocating and noxious gas. This gives them headaches, nose bleeds, itchy eyes, irritability, asthma and other chest conditions. One person said his five-year-old Jack Russell vomits blood whenever the pungent gas – which smells like a match that has just been struck – blows across the area.
Tess Hodgson, who has since moved to New Zealand, said she lived with her parents in the nearby Windsor Park for several months. Her older children were affected by “ongoing sinus infection, ear infections and skin irritations”, and her 10-year-old “suffered from continuous congestion and allergy problems”. These symptoms came when the “stench of the dump” was at its worst, she said.
EnviroServ, which operates the landfill, has consistently rejected these claims. It told the Mail & Guardian that its independent air quality and health impact studies had not found “any health impacts of concern”. In a recent newsletter, the company said its facilities are “routinely and independently audited against license requirements”. Shongweni achieved a 99.1% rating in its last audit.
Despite that rating, complaints against the landfill, filed with the eThekwini municipality and environment department, suddenly jumped in November 2015 and reached some 300 a month in August this year. EnviroServ told M&G that this was a result of the ongoing drought. Less rainfall meant a higher concentration of hydrogen sulphide in their wastewater, which meant more smell.
The environment department responded to this escalation by putting a restriction on the admission of Type 1 waste to the plant. This is hazardous waste, and waste that is likely to emit pungent odours. In an August 24 response to a further community complaint, Mark Gordon, deputy director general of chemical and waste management at the environment department, said his department had issued a “letter of instruction” to the landfill. EnviroServ had then agreed to a set of 11 remedial actions, he said. These included research into the impacts of waste at the site on the surrounding area. The environment minister was copied in that email. The residents’ response was that air quality had not improved.
The Green Scorpions then conducted an environmental compliance inspection on August 31, and issued a pre-compliance notice on September 9. EnviroServ responded to this a week later and the Scorpions did a follow-up inspection on October 14.
This inspection found that “noncompliance to the legal requirements have already taken place” at the landfill. That included several failures by the landfill to comply with different parts of environment legislation, from the National Environmental Management: Waste Act to the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act. The latter requires: “The occupier of any premises must take reasonable steps to prevent the emission of any offensive odour caused by any activity on such premises.”
This did not seem to be happening, according to the Scorpions. Large quantities of leachate – water that runs through the landfill and becomes polluted – was being treated at the landfill and then trucked to the nearby municipal wastewater treatment plant for disposal. But the plant stopped this arrangement, saying “the quality of leachate required for disposal was not being continuously complied with”. The Scorpions concluded that this meant the onsite treatment plant was not doing its job properly.
That water was being stored in large tanks at the landfill, which the Scorpions said was probably responsible for part of the odour problems. They referred to an ambient air sampling report prepared by Geozone Environmental. It stated that: “Hydrogen sulphide emissions from the leachate storage tanks on the Shongweni Landfill Site were above the odour detection levels for this compound.” These levels were also exceeding those levels in residential areas such as Hillcrest. With complaints flooding in – and documents showing EnviroServ knew about these since at least November 2015 – the environment department said: “EnviroServ has been implementing certain mitigation measures which, to date, have not resolved the problem.”
The Scorpions threw in anecdotal evidence of the smell: “During the inspection, the EMIs [environmental management inspectorates] experienced a continuous malodour emanating from the site. This intensified as the EMIs moved closer to the leachate tank and contaminated storm water dam.”
Given the spike in complaints, and their relating to “more serious health impacts than simply an odour department”, the department said it was “seriously concerned as there seems to be a correlation between the odours and health impacts”. It then served a compliance notice to EnviroServ on October 28. This noted that urgency was needed due to the “potential harm that your [EnviroServ] operation poses to human health and the environment”.
The compliance notice ordered EnviroServ to “cease with the disposal of all Type 1 waste” from the landfill. The company would then have to conduct impact assessment studies “focusing on the impacts on health and wellbeing associated with the landfill site”. It told M&G that it had complied with the compliance notice, and had commissioned health and technical studies. But it had objected to the timeframes and some of the “impractical” actions that the department had requested. It favoured its own solutions, which were part of R10-million worth of work to monitor and lessen air pollution, it said. “EnviroServ has taken every issue very seriously and committed significant resource to addressing its contribution to the odours.” Tracking down the complaints was hard because the odours were not constant, it said.
Although EnviroServ has stopped disposing of Type 1 waste at Shongweni landfill, locals said little has improved in the way of smell. Peter Caley said: “The problem is clearly inside the dump, not with the waste that they bring in. It needs to be closed down.” That would allow for proper rehabilitation of the site, he said.
A “toxic trek” by residents is planned for next week to raise more issues about the landfill.