/ 26 August 2022

Sasol in the dock for environmental degradation at Secunda, polluting the Vaal River

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The criminal case relates to a complaint brought by a former Sasol employee-turned-whistleblower, Ian Erasmus. (Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images)

Sasol has been ordered to appear in court next month to face several charges of environmental degradation. These include the unlawful disposal of waste and the negligent discharge of contaminated water into the Vaal River at its Secunda operations in Mpumalanga.

In July, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) served the chemical and energy company with a summons to appear in the Secunda magistrate’s court on 20 September to face criminal proceedings.

Albi Modise, spokesperson for the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment, confirmed that the case relates to the complaint that was reported by Ian Erasmus, a former Sasol employee-turned-whistleblower, about the company’s alleged industrial pollution of the Vaal River, on which about 19 million people depend.

What the charges are about

In March last year, the Mail & Guardian reported how Erasmus, who worked as a senior process controller at Sasol from 2005 until he was allegedly forced to resign in 2020, had endured “years of hell” after blowing the whistle on the company’s alleged unlawful disposal of the hazardous chemicals, vanadium, diethanolamine and potassium carbonate, into the river. The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has listed diethanolamine as cancer-causing.

Modise told the M&G this week: “The summons were issued on 27 July 2022 by the Secunda magistrate’s court under instruction of advocate [Tula] Bekwa, the prosecutor in the matter. These summons were issued to Sasol South Africa Limited as well as Ms Nomia Machebe [in her capacity as a representative of Sasol South Africa Limited].

“The charges relate to the following alleged misconduct: the unauthorised disposal of waste; dismissing information which may have disclosed evidence of a potential environmental risk; disposal of waste in a manner which is likely to cause pollution; commencing activities in the absence of an environmental authorisation; and unlawful, negligent disposition/discharge of contaminated water into a water resource,” Modise said.

Monica Nyuswa, the regional communications manager for the Mpumalanga division of the NPA, said: “The NPA confirms that we have served Sasol Pty (Ltd) with a J175, relating to charges of environmental degradation. The matter is on the first appearance roll for the 20 September 2022. This is the only information we can disclose at this stage.”

The criminal proceedings are mentioned in Sasol’s annual financial results for the year ended June 30, which were released on Tuesday. “On 27 July 2022, the National Prosecuting Authority served Sasol with a summons instituting criminal proceedings. The charges relate to aspects of environmental management at its SO [Secunda Operations]. Sasol is busy studying the summons and the charges contained therein and will adhere to the legal process that will follow,” it stated. 

The company did not respond further to the M&G.

The whistleblower

In February 2019, Erasmus testified at the South African Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC) inquiry into the pollution of the river, alleging that Sasol, through gross negligence, was dumping the hazardous chemicals into the river system because chemical sewer valves at its Secunda Benfield units were broken. Three months after his protected disclosures, he was suspended.

He had first noticed that a valve at the Benfield unit could not close in 2012, reported it to his foreman, put an order to have the valve repaired and forgot about it. In 2015, he noticed the same valve was still broken, alerted his managers, put in another order for repair, which was rejected. 

“I started putting in regular requests to have the valve repaired, but there was no action to repair these valves, so I reported it to the Sasol ethics department,” he told the M&G last year.

When there was still no action for years, he “decided to do the right thing” according to Sasol’s codes and procedures on whistleblowing by disclosing the information to the then department of environmental affairs. 

He made another protected disclosure to the Human Rights Commission “because this Benfield waste can and probably has ended up in the Vaal River unchecked for years”. In June 2020, the environment department started its criminal investigation, which was based on information that Erasmus gave to the SAHRC, and was recently finalised.

Erasmus said this week that he had been advised not to speak to the media so as not to jeopardise the case. “All I can say is that I will be wearing a tie on 20 September,” he said.