Environment department slammed for suspending regulations on trade in hazardous chemicals

The department of forestry, fisheries and the environment has been criticised for suspending for a year the implementation of domestic regulations relating to a multinational treaty to end global trade in banned and restricted chemicals and pesticides.

Minister Barbara Creecy announced in late November that the department was suspending enforcement of the regulations linked to the Rotterdam Convention aimed at protecting  human health and the environment from potential harm.

The regulations apply to importers and exporters of pesticides and industrial chemicals that have been banned or severely restricted for human and animal health or for environmental reasons. Theey outline the procedure that enables countries to monitor and control trade in dangerous pesticides and industrial chemicals.

Yet South Africa has been a party to the Rotterdam Convention since September 2002 with a date for implementation February 2004, noted Leslie London, a public health professor at the University of Cape Town.

Creecy said the suspension was necessary to allow South Africa sufficient time to ensure compliance with the Rotterdam Convention.

“That’s almost two decades ago, meaning that while we have ratified it, we have had no mechanism to make the Convention applicable in South Africa for 17 years,” London said.

“Fast forward to May 2021 and the department produces the most modest and reasonable set of regulations to enable it to domesticate an international commitment. I mean, we are not banning the chemicals, we are just asking that there is a notification and application process.

“How intrusive can that be? If the department decides this chemical is not in South Africa’s interest, you can appeal. And with the slightest puff, the house is blown down. It’s quite incredible that industry has this power and the government is so ineffectual in allowing this to be repealed.”

London said three pesticides subject to the convention were stored at agrochemical producer UPL’s chemical warehouse in Cornubia, which went up in flames during last July’s riots in KwaZulu-Natal.

“Those chemicals should have been vetted under the regulations. It will be very interesting to see if they were subject to anything under the convention and whether there will be any prosecutions,” he said, adding, however, that this was unlikely “if there were no regulations being enforced”.

These pesticides were carbofuran, benomyl and methamidophos which London said are subject to final regulatory measures in other countries. 

The withdrawal of the regulations means “we have no way to enforce a convention 17 years after we became a party to the convention”, he said.

“While the preoccupation with a possible ‘halt in trade and ultimately production in South Africa’ may be on the mind of some officials, there is no evidence that imposing these quite modest restrictions … on a relatively small number of chemicals could possibly impair the responsible use of chemicals in industry,” London added.

He wondered why South Africa had bothered to ratify the convention “if it was going to cause a halt in trade and production? I think it is a symptom that we have no real gumption when it comes to tough decisions to protect the environment”.

The suspension is not a repeal of the prior informed consent procedure regulations but rather a halt for a limited time for trade partners to get their systems aligned to the regulations, said Albi Modise, the department’s spokesperson.

“The scope of the regulations goes beyond the Rotterdam Convention and other trading partners did not have knowledge of this and resulted in delays in processing of imports at ports of entry.” 

He said the 12-month suspension would strengthen implementation through information dissemination and capacity building among trading partners.

Rico Euripidou, an environmental health campaigner at groundWork, said the implied benefit of listing substances in the convention is the intention to give countries the information they need to protect public health and the environment and ensure the environmentally sound management of chemicals and their wastes. 

“By absolving ourselves from this protection we are, in effect, allowing outside parties and industry stakeholders to act as they please for the benefit of industry,” he said.

“We are effectively allowing industry a free reign to decide whether the chemicals they import and use are safe for our public and that we trust them to manage the risks on our behalf. It’s absolutely absurd that we would rationally allow this to happen in our country.

“That the department has allowed this to happen speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of the convention’s intent and inherently weak governance structure of the convention in the first place,” Euripidou added.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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