One of South Africa’s largest industrial air polluters, ArcelorMittal, has been charged with breaking environmental laws. Although the company runs several enormous iron smelters around the world, the charges are for pollution at its Vanderbijlpark plant, south of Johannesburg.
That plant, a relic of an apartheid state intent on surviving sanctions by producing resources such as iron, has had a long-running battle with the environmental affairs department and civil society groups.
The charge sheet has two accused: ArcelorMittal South Africa and its environmental manager. It says the accused are “guilty of the following offences” and lists three separate occasions where air quality laws were broken.
Those laws are realised by section 24 of the Constitution, which guarantees that “everyone has the right to have an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing”.
The National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act sets out acceptable pollution levels for companies. Companies have to apply for permission to release certaindangerous gases. Their local municipality is meant to interrogate these applications, with the help of the environmental affairs department at national level, to set acceptable levels of the gases. These should weigh up the need for people to have clean airwith the importance of economic activity.
Two of the charges against ArcelorMittal date back to November 2013, when the company allegedly “unlawfully and intentionally conducted a listed activity without an atmospheric emission licence”. The other charge is for failing to “comply with the condition of the atmospheric emission licence” in 2016.
In the latter case, the company’s coke-making plant released more hydrogen sulphide than it is legally allowed to. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the gas is most dangerous when breathed deeply into people’s lungs. It then spreads around the body. If it gets to the central nervous system, the organisation says death from a heart attack is possible.
In a press release announcing the charges to shareholders, the company said: “The summons instituting criminal proceedings in this regard were served on the company on May 30 2019.” 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”.
These charges are not the first time the company has fallen foul of the law. In a 2007 inspection, the environment department’s Green Scorpions noted the plant was releasing “excessive emissions of sulphur dioxide” each day.
Earlier this year, the company said it was unable to stop pollutants coming from its sprawling steel plant and asked for more time to upgrade parts of it so as to comply with the law. This permission would allow it to keep emitting high levels of pollutants.
The Mail &Guardian has reported on the company’s Vanderbijlpark plant on several occasions in the past two decades. On each occasion, people talked about late-night pollution from the factory and how sick it made them. Some said they had to buy medication, such as asthma inhalers. Others said their livestock had been affected by polluted air and water in the area.
In a June 2015 visit, 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 at the feet of ArcelorMittal: “We suffer because of that factory. It does what it wants and nobody is fighting for us.”
In March, the M&G visited the area again. One resident said that on some nights, when air pollution is particularly bad, he wakes up with blood flowing out of his nose. “That’s when I take my children to the [Vaal] river to breathe.”
Wednesday was World Environment Day, with air pollution as the main theme. Globally, seven million people die each year because of toxic air. The WHO estimates that 20000 of those are South Africans.
But linking the pollution that comes out of factories, cars and homes to deaths is nearly impossible, so companies continue to escape accountability for the effects of their pollutants.
This means the state has to set limits for air pollution, prosecute companies if they exceed those levels, and then continue to make the limits more stringent.