Posted 13 June 2011, by Sheree Bega, IOL Scitech, iol.co.za
Puseletso Matsepe Daniels misses her seven children, but she won’t risk letting them live with her on her father’s farm in Steel Valley.
That will only happen, she says, when she is certain the land beneath her feet is no longer contaminated.
“I’m scared for their lives,” Daniels says of her predicament. “They will not come here until we make sure the area is cleaned up and suitable for living.”
So, instead, her children live with relatives in other parts of Vanderbijlpark while Daniels and her husband stay put on the farm, which neighbours ArcelorMittal’s Vanderbijlpark steel works, determined to ensure the legacy of her father, Strike Matsepe, endures.
In the early 1990s Matsepe, a former mechanic, cashed in his pension and bought land “at the time of Mandela when people could buy wherever they liked”, he stated years ago.
But then his land and groundwater supplies became so contaminated that the crops withered, his cattle perished and animals were born with birth defects.
Later, Matsepe was hospitalised for kidney failure while his sister, who lived on the farm with him, died of cancer and kidney failure.
He no longer lives on the land that once made him so proud, but the sickly Matsepe, now in his 80s, is determined to be compensated properly, unlike many of his neighbours in Steel Valley, a collection of once-thriving smallholdings.
Most of his neighbours are long gone – around 500 families once lived in Steel Valley, but only four families remain on the blighted land. Matsepe mobilised his neighbours to challenge the then state-owned Iscor in court, but these bids failed, resulting in out-of-court settlements that divided the community.
“They (Iscor) bought out everybody, but my father didn’t want to settle,” says Daniels. “He came up with his own price and Iscor didn’t want to take it. He wants to be compensated properly. He is sick and an old man now.”
She points to her vegetable garden, in which weathered-looking spinach seem to cling to life. “The ground is polluted. Our vegetables are not growing properly, but what can we do?”
Her house smells like dust, which settles as black as the night on her walls and furniture, flying in from the ash heap across the road. “We must always close our doors and windows and suffocate. I’m a lady and I cannot even have lace curtains. We hate it when the wind blows.”
But, slowly, improvements are being made. ArcelorMittal (formerly Iscor) is now rehabilitating the mountainous slagheap across the road, which Daniels welcomes. “It’s not as bad as it used to be. At least they are doing something.”
In 2007, the Department of Environmental Affairs listed a litany of environmental legislation contraventions and non-compliance by ArcelorMittal, including dumping hazardous waste on a prohibited site as well as significant pollution of groundwater and surface water.
Siegfried Spanig, the group manager of environment at ArcelorMittal, is “proud” the waste disposal site is now 40 percent rehabilitated.
“The rehabilitation entails shaping the waste site nicely and capping it. We’re putting a liner on top of the waste body, which is mainly slag, to prevent the ingress of rain water into the waste body.
“The leachate generation will be stopped. It won’t stop overnight, but will stop over time,” Spanig says.
But Samson Mokoena, a co-ordinator for the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, believes too little is being done to remediate decades of underground pollution.
He, too, has a personal link with Steel Valley – his parents owned a smallholding here, but were later forced to sell to Iscor.
“This used to be a nice community. There was a small dairy here,” he gestures to a barren piece of land. “And a shop there. We had a nice church. We were a close community and it was very mixed and vibrant. That was back in the early 1990s.
“But then we noticed the water pollution directly affecting our lives. Our cattle started dying and there were miscarriages. Many people have cancer, lung disease and kidney failure. Now, all these years later, the soil is not rehabilitated, the groundwater is contaminated, it is left the way it was. Has ArcelorMittal stopped the underground water contamination in Steel Valley? No. How much have they invested in fixing the destruction of land? Nothing.
“So when you (ArcelorMittal) talk about the historical legacy, you need to make sure you speak to people who are part and parcel of the land, who have history and heritage in this land. For me as an African, you’ll never fix anything if the land is destroyed. You’ve done nothing.”
It was in Steel Valley that Mokoena’s environmental activism sprouted, as if from a seed.
Now, together with Daniels, he is working on setting up the Steel Valley Foundation, arising from the Steel Valley Crisis Committee, which first took Iscor on years ago.
“There are lots of stories, archival material and photos of the community which used to be here that we want to collect. There are photos and maps. It needs to be known that people never moved here because they wanted to. They had to either negotiate with Iscor or their property was attached because of all the legal fees. We want to remember everybody and how they have suffered. When we had a right to an environment that is clean and safe, the state turned a blind eye to us.”
A 2006 report, “Throwing stones at a giant”, an account of the Steel Valley struggle against pollution, by the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, referred to the battle between Steel Valley landowners and Iscor/ ArcelorMittal as a “David and Goliath type of struggle because in mobilising against Mittal Steel the local community is challenging one of the giants of corporate globalisation”.
The report concluded that the Iscor steel works had been the source of dangerous air, groundwater and surface pollution “which has impacted catastrophically on its neighbours” and spoke of “ongoing and serious pollution of people and the environment”.
But ArcelorMittal says it has undertaken significant projects to rehabilitate the environment, including the recent opening of its state-of-the-art, R225 million dust extraction facilities in Vereeniging.
“If you look at the facility now, you won’t see any dust coming from the stacks and from the building,” says Spanig. “The emission values we see at the moment are well below the legal limits. It works like a charm. We’re very proud of what we’ve achieved in Vereeniging.
“If you look at Vanderbijlpark, the situation has improved tremendously. But we still need to admit it’s work in progress.”
He points out how sulphur dioxide emissions, which are linked to respiratory illnesses and lung disease, had reduced by 40 percent in Vanderbijlpark from the peak of 2009. “Since 2007 we’ve spent a billion rand on air pollution projects only, and we’ll spend about a billion more until 2015 on other projects.”
Spanig says stricter environmental legislation has played its part in the company’s drive for sustainability, but it’s also the “right thing to do”.
“With waste, we’ve achieved a turnaround. No waste is disposed of on unlined areas anymore… We’re addressing the root cause of underground pollution”.
But Mokoena questions this as he points to a canal flowing with black water, that reeks of chemicals from ArcelorMittal’s steel mill.
He says this conflicts with the company’s claims that it adopts a zero effluent discharge system, where all processed water and effluent are desalinated and reused on site.
“This is a canal that flows into the Rietspruit, which flows into the Vaal River. There are small farms that use this water, people who fish in the Vaal barrage, but this water is contaminated for them. ArcelorMittal is still releasing toxic water to the environment and communities. My argument is it has spent millions on its zero effluent discharge status, but this is not working.
“ArcelorMittal speaks of all the investment its has made and how it is ‘turning the situation around’, but it will take another 40 years to see the difference.
“They have not dealt with the issues outside their operations. Their pollution moved long ago outside their boundaries to communities, but what have they invested in communities like Boipatong and Bophelong to make sure people live in a clean, safe environment?
“In meetings with us, they have told us the sins of the father (Iscor) are being cleared up, and that ‘we’re moving to a bright future’. They haven’t done anything for me to see that those sins are fully cleansed.”
In ArcelorMittal’s 2010 annual report, it notes how it has conducted “extensive stakeholder mapping exercises to identify key community stakeholder groups” in surrounding communities and has renovated police stations and community halls, built schools and reroofed homes in Bophelong and Boipatong.
But Daniels is sceptical of these corporate social responsibility initiatives. “They are killing people softly. People are still polluted with all the dust from their operations.”
From her small home opposite the steel mill, Aletta Mokoena complains bitterly about the dust.
“It makes my children ill. They are always coughing. There is black ash that comes in everywhere, but we don’t hear anything from this company.”
Spanig acknowledges more can be done. “But what is our biggest social contribution we can make? To reduce our pollution load even further… I can sometimes agree with communities that they don’t always see a difference, especially in winter.
“But that’s not pollution coming from us. That is from domestic coal burning. We won’t deny we don’t generate dust and that there are still various projects planned to reduce the dust levels.”
Between ArcelorMittal and NGOs, there is less acrimony, says Mokoena, but still a deep sense of mistrust remains.
Central to this is the justice alliance’s legal battle to obtain ArcelorMittal’s environmental Master Plan of 2002, which will reveal the effects of a pollution plume from one of its most damaging waste storage dams, Dam 10.
The company, in its latest annual report, says the Master Plan is outdated and irrelevant. But Mokoena doesn’t think so.
“The Master Plan has to be released so we can quantify how far the pollution plume has gone into the Rietspruit. We just want to see how much we’ve been poisoned. But the Department of Water Affairs has allowed them to keep it secret.
“The plan is relevant to our lives and to the people who live around here. We’ve already paid the highest price – we’ve lost our land and our health and we’re still paying.”
But Spanig says a groundwater management plan for Vanderbijlpark is being peer reviewed, and some 400 boreholes have been tested. “Pollution has not reached the Rietspruit. Some pollution has spread to surrounding areas, but the initial pollution fears did not fully materialise.”
Mokoena doubts this and says the company needs to pay up. “We still believe they need to be sued for compensation for personal injury in the international courts, because until there is justice for this community, this matter will never end.”
Daniels agrees: “We don’t want the legacy of Steel Valley to be forgotten. As long as ArcelorMittal is there, the Steel Valley Foundation will be there.” – Saturday Star