In an announcement to shareholders, steel manufacturer ArcelorMittal said that it is facing criminal charges for “three alleged transgressions of its atmospheric emissions licence”.
Companies are given licences by government that say how much they can pollute the air where they operate. In South Africa, these limits are already much weaker than they are in similar countries. New limits came into effect in 2015 but all major polluters have applied for permission to largely ignore them. ArcelorMittal is one of these companies.
The release said: “The summons instituting criminal proceedings in this regard were served on the company on 30 May 2019.” Two of the charges relate to the company allegedly running parts of its operation without their being covered by an atmospheric emissions licence. The other charge is for allegedly not sticking to the rules of its existing licence.
The maximum fine for this is R15-million, according to the announcement. ArcelorMittal said it had talked to its lawyers and would “adhere to the relevant legal processes that will follow”.
The Mail & Guardian has reported on ArcelorMittal’s Vanderbijlpark plant on several occasions, talking to community members living near its smokestacks. On each occasion, people talked about late-night pollution from the factory and how much it made them sick.
In June 2015, a resident of nearby Boipatong said the worst smoke came at night. An asthmatic, she would wake up, struggling to breathe. “You open the door to try to get fresh air and there is just this smoke outside. You cannot escape.”
Like others, she laid the blame squarely on ArcelorMittal: “We suffer because of that factory. It does what it wants and nobody is fighting for us.”
This March, the M&G visited the community again. Below is that story.
Valley of Death – Aluta continua
Steel giant ArcelorMittal wants permission to keep releasing toxic air pollution, despite blanketing homes in pollutants for decades
It takes over eight hours of constant burning at 1 000 °C to turn coal into the coke that’s mixed with iron ore to make steel. At the massive ArcelorMittal steelworks in Vanderbijlpark, south of Johannesburg, the burning starts late in the afternoon. Grey and then increasingly black dust starts to pour out of the four smokestacks at the plant.
Depending on the wind, this blows over the communities of Boipatong, Sharpeville, Sebokeng and eventually the over whole Vaal Triangle. Packed with pollutants like sulphur dioxide, it reaches its peak late at night — when people are asleep and regulators are not at work. In Boipatong, on the western side of the plant, people close their windows and doors and sleep in stifling heat so the dust doesn’t go deep into their lungs.
The pollution coming from the four smokestacks is often toxic — higher than is allowed by South Africa’s already weak air quality laws. ArcelorMittal was involved in drafting these laws, as far back as 2006. At this time the newly privatised company was making so much profit that it made its British owner — Lakshmi Mittal — the third richest man in the world.
In a 2007 inspection, the environment department’s Green Scorpions noted the plant was releasing “excessive emissions of sulphur dioxide” each day.
Thirteen years after helping to draft air pollution laws, the company says it is unable to stop pollutants coming from its sprawling steel plant and is asking for more time to upgrade parts of the steelwork so it complies with the law. Permission would allow it to keep emitting illegal levels of pollutants.
In mid-March, it held a community meeting at an upmarket estate an expensive taxi ride away from Vanderbijlpark. ArcelorMittal’s consultants told him that their models showed the steel works releasing more pollutants than were allowed 999 times a year — that is 911 times more than they are allowed to.
One person attended.The minutes record the person saying the meeting should have been closer to the people affected by ArcelorMittal’s pollution. That person — Samson Mokoena — works for the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, a community group that has fought with the steel company, since the group’s founding in 2006. It forced the normally secretive steel works to release records in 2015 of its environmental pollution, after ArcelorMittal fought them all the way to the Supreme Court of Appeal. These documented things such as toxic pollutants flowing into local groundwater because its waste dump was not lined.
Sitting in the alliance’s offices — wedged between the sheriff’s office and a sex shop advertising cold energy drinks — Mokoena says the postponement application is not a surprise.
He even laughs at the predictability of it, his thin salt-and-pepper coloured moustache wiggling at the effort. “They were part of the team that drafted these laws. A loophole was created and everyone jumped on.” Now ArcelorMittal says it cannot meet the legal requirement for the four kilns where it burns coal coke. Waiting so late is a deliberate ploy, says Mokoena.
“They’re coming at the last minute and dragging the process out so they can twist the government’s arm.” He gently hits his fist on the boardroom table for emphasis: “They tell government that complying with the law will mean job losses, so they get what they want.”
Companies with old factories are meant to comply with the law by 2020. A five year postponement has been built into the process — this is what ArcelorMittal is taking advantage of. Other major polluters like Sasol and Eskom are doing the same thing. These applications have to be approved by the national air quality officer, at the environment department.
The department tells the Mail & Guardian that ArcelorMittal has reported higher than legally allowed pollution for every quarter since 2016. A compliance notice was issued last year, telling the plant to improve its record or face a fine. Regarding the pending application to be exempt from the law, the department says it will, “in concurrence with the affected municipality” undertake a “rigorous process with ArcelorMittal’s application” once it is received.
Mokoena says the department is failing to protect people’s right to a clean environment, guaranteed by Section 24 of the Constitution. “In the 90s we had hope. We had a new Constitution and fantastic legislation. But government is not ensuring that companies comply with that law. Things won’t change now — they’ll get the postponement and keep on polluting.”
The M&G visiting the western side of ArcelorMittal in 2015, so this time it went to the eastern side, next to the plant’s waste dump. Separated from this by a narrow tar road, local resident John Dewing uses a stunted and deformed baby chick to illustrate the impact of pollution. Gently placing it on a wooden bench under a tree in his cluttered yard, he says nothing here grows properly. Chicks die young, after growing bones and bits where they shouldn’t. Cats die from eating pollution-riddled rats.
His prize cow waited three years before going on heat, and only then at a time when the dirty air flowing from ArcelorMittal was particularly low. Holding a battered green smartphone in his paw-like hands, he flips through pictures of dead animal fetuses. Scrolling through these he pauses at some of the hundreds of pictures he has of polluted air — sometimes so dark and thick it looks like a storm is brewing over the steel plant.
Wearing an olive-green hat so old and stained in sweat that it looks nearly brown, he speaks with an urgency that only slows down thanks to deep coughing. “It’s absurd. Where else does this happen except here?” At one point in a two hour conversation, he gesticulates at the ground, “deformities, deformities”.
He sends his pictures via WhatsApp to the company’s environmental officer, sometimes getting promises of urgent action. Asked by the M&G about its application to keep polluting, ArcelorMittal says it “continues to engage with various authorities on certain environmental issues” related to the Vanderbijlpark plant. “These issues are largely to do with the interpretation of the application of atmospheric emission licenses as well as exceedances of the minimum sulphur-related emissions.”
Over the next three years, the company says it will spend “a significant amount” to “address emissions” at the plant.
Having lost a court case to ArcelorMittal on a technicality, and without answers to his petitioning, Dewing has taken to sending his photographs in emails to the national environment department, using the same polite wording he shows in conversation.
The emails don’t carry his rolling r’s and read more like a stream of consciousness essay. One starts, “Dear people of the DEA [department of environmental affairs] …” and goes on to say; “Hazardous waste is being dumped through air pollution on my property.” The nearby ArcelorMittal waste dump contains a mix of arsenic, cadmium, lead and zinc — when the wind whips it up that can mix with the sulphur dioxide and tiny dust particles coming from the coke kilns.”
The only time he got a response, officials from the department visited his home. Sitting on his couch, one asked: “But aren’t you afraid of people losing their jobs?” Recounting this, Dewing says — after a moment of surprised silence — he said: “I don’t want people to lose their jobs. But what about my health?”
After nearly four decades near the steel works, Dewing says he has little in the way of health. Because the health department does not collect data on upper respiratory health problems, complaints like his are treated as circumstantial — Even if his health issues are repeated throughout Vanderbijlpark, and the Vaal’s industrial heartland. ArcelorMittal did not answer the M&G’s questions on how many people its operations make sick, or how many people die as a result.
For Dewing, this means more days where his home is smothered in pollution. On bad nights he wakes up with blood flowing out of his nose. “That’s when I take my children to the [Vaal] river to breathe.”