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Headless cats and government promises back in 2005

In Steel Valley, residents say cats are born without heads, a piglet had sexual organs growing out of its anus and a cow born a hermaphrodite had to be put down. Vegetables grow in strange shapes and even the rats are ill.

These alleged monstrosities, compounded by fears about human cancers and diseases, have prompted die-hard residents of Vanderbijlpark, southwest of Johannesburg, to launch fresh legal action against South Africa’s steel giant, Mittal Steel.

Government interest in the pollution claims appears to have been aroused by a separate Constitutional Court action launched against President Thabo Mbeki and various officials. A representative of Mbeki’s office was expected to visit Steel Valley last week but did not turn up.

But Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Marthinus van Schalkwyk visited the area on Monday to declare Steel Valley and the surrounding Vaal Triangle a “pollution hot spot”. He said, despite the cost of reducing pollution: “I want to assure you, from government’s side, we mean business. There will be no favouritism — the polluter will pay.”

Among the residents who went to meet Van Schalkwyk was Strike Matsepo, a Steel Valley farmer who is sickly and whose sister died while she was living with him last year. Blood tests showed she had high levels of cadmium, a heavy metal that can cause kidney failure.

The Steel Valley residents claim water, land and air pollution caused by Mittal Steel, formerly Iscor, is giving them cancers, skin infections and kidney diseases. They also tell numerous horror stories about deformities among animals.

Matsepo cashed in his pension to buy a two-hectare smallholding in Steel Valley in 1993 but has lost most of his livestock. “It used to be a good place, but my 26 cows, five sheep and six goats have died, together with a number of dogs and cats.”

Motsepo and his neighbour, Johan Dewing, are suing Mittal Steel for about R6-million in damages as a result of their alleged loss of health and livelihood. The case is set to be heard in the Johannesburg High Court in October.

Last month another resident, Johan de Kock, lodged papers in the Constitutional Court in a bid to force the government to meet its responsibilities in policing pollution by the steel giant.

The three residents pursuing legal action are the last of a group of 16 Steel Valley landowners and residents who tried to obtain court interdicts to stop Iscor polluting their valley in 2001. The interdict proceedings were dismissed in 2003 and all the other applicants withdrew after Iscor bought their properties.

Last week, Judge Meyer Joffe ordered Matsepo, Dewing and Dewing’s ex-wife each to pay about R230 000 towards the cost of the interdict proceedings. An angry Dewing told the Mail & Guardian the steel company had offered to buy his property for R50 000, but he was now expected to pay more than four times that amount in legal costs.

The steel factory has slimes dams covering about 140 hectares that are not lined, and polluted water is seeping into aquifers, the research report states. The dust from slag heaps at the perimeter of the property blows off and settles kilometres away. Low-grade coal used for power generation and the smelting of iron ore release sulphurous compounds into the air.

Nearly 40% of 100 residents who underwent medical tests had traces of cadmium in their blood, according to the Friends of Steel Valley, a group set up to support residents. Some children have learning problems, are chronically fatigued and suffer from memory loss and lung ailments.

Tami Didiza, general manager of Mittal Steel South Africa, said the company would spend “in excess of R960-million” on implementing “environmental-related improvement projects”. The target dates for completing a “master plan dealing with issues concerning the environment” vary from 2005 to 2007. Didiza added that Mittal Steel had a dedicated forum to address the concerns of local communities.

This is a shortened version of the original story that was published on June 14 2005

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Fiona Macleod
Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements.

She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga.

An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation.

She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive.

She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice.

Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald is a South African environmental reporter, particularly experienced in the investigative field. After 10 years at the Mail & Guardian, she signed on with City Press in 2011. Her investigative environmental features have been recognised with numerous national journalism awards. Her coverage revolves around climate change politics, land reform, polluting mines, and environmental health. The world’s journey to find a deal to address climate change has shaped her career to a great degree. Yolandi attended her first climate change conference in Montreal in 2005. In the last decade, she has been present at seven of the COP’s, including the all-important COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. South Africa’s own addiction to coal in the midst of these talks has featured prominently in her reports.

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