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Monday Mar 13, 2017

Landfill monster choking Midrand residents

Here's the monster," says Dr Philemon Mahuma as the brown hulk of the rubbish dump looms into view.

If Mahuma, a family physician, could move from his upmarket home here in Midstream Estates, he "would be gone yesterday"."

That's how horrible it has become, he says, living alongside his "bad neighbour" - Interwaste's FG Landfill in Olifantsfontein.'"

Philemon Mahuma, a resident of Midstream Estates, points out the FG Landfill that looms behind his home.

"At night, we wake up choking and coughing," says Mahuma, a lecturer at the University of Pretoria, his voice hoarse.

He is sick again. "We can't breathe in our own homes. We suffer from constant headaches and tiredness.”"

Last month, following a year-long criminal investigation by the Green Scorpions, the Department of Environmental Affairs slapped the waste disposal firm with a hard-hitting final directive, citing evidence of "significant pollution” and environmental degradation at the site."

This forced Interwaste to halt all disposal activities within five working days, to undertake specialist studies into air quality and review engineering designs to report on the findings within specific periods.

But the firm lodged an immediate appeal, bringing a court order to suspend the directive while its appeal is pending.

For now, the future of the dump rests with Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa, who gave interested and affected parties until yesterday to make their final submissions.

For Mahuma, who has lived in the estate for the past five years, ranked among the most exclusive properties in South Africa, there is no question of who must go first.

"We were here before this landfill. Yet every year, this dump is growing. It makes you angry because it feels like this company is deliberately flouting the law… that there's deliberate malice," he says. He moves to the stove. “If I put my hand over the stove here and it’s hot, what will happen? It will burn. But people will argue because we haven’t done a health study that has experimented with hands over fire, we won’t burn.'''"

"We have senses for a reason – to protect us and to warn us. If I'm exposed to a noxious element, it’s going to cause me to sneeze and to cough. It’s obvious… And I think we have the numbers on our side.''"

Ishaam Abader, the deputy director-general of compliance and enforcement at the DEA, cites the large number of complaints, "numbering in the thousands over air quality from the landfill, usually during the night or early mornings when people are at home.

"The complaints are based on air pollution, including odour, burning eyes and skin, sinusitis, and other respiratory ailments which have continued even after the installation of the new flare…"

The firm installed the flare in October. "Although Interwaste has taken some measures, a significant number of complaints continue to be received daily.

The odours are clearly having a significant impact on the well- being of many people living in nearby c o mmuni t i e s , " Abader maintains.

Jan Zeederberg, the chairperson of the Greater Midstream Forum, which lodged an application with Molewa for an order not to suspend the operation of the directive, pending Interwaste's appeal, says it decided to join the other communities closer to the FG site, Glen Austin and Tembisa, "who have also been complaining bitterly about the FG site to strengthen their cause and protect the rights and interests of our own residents".

The forum represents the 5 000 families, businesses and schools within Midstream. "The foul smell is because of the inappropriate use of the FG site by its owners given that the FG site sits in the middle of an area of over 500 000 residents.

The site owners are well aware their site has had an immediate and direct impact on their neighbours… They seem to have ignored their responsibility."

Residents blame the stench, in part, on "toxic" slurry from mining firms like Lonmin that the DEA authorised to be dumped at the landfill four years ago after de-listing it.

Interwaste maintains this mining waste is no longer disposed of at the FG landfill.

Kerryn Anning, who bought her "dream home" in the estate, wishes she, too, could move her family.

"A lot of us have invested all our money into our dream homes. You can't just up and leave. We're more worried about our health and our children's health.

"I'm an asthmatic and I can't breathe in the mornings anymore. Last week, my non-asthmatic daughter had an asthma attack playing hockey on the field just as you drive into the estate.

"The smell hit us and she couldn't breathe. And they (Interwaste) want to tell us this isn't affecting us?"

Her neighbour, Bonnie-Lee Sanders, agrees. "Sometimes, it feels like chilli powder is burning your nose.

My 15-year-old daughter sleeps with all her windows and door closed.

When I go into her room in the mornings, it smells like burnt wires."

"Come spend a night at my house," invites her neighbour Heather Sheriffs. "We'll leave all the windows open.

"You'll wake up and be gassed out."

Interwaste has termed the department's final directive "procedurally unfair, irrational and heavy handed", arguing that authorities haven't established it as the source of significant pollution.

"No air pollution is being caused by the FG site. Hydrogen sulphide is a common pollutant. Low concentrations cause the nuisance of odours without any risk to health.
"The site is located in an industrialised region with a large number of possible causes of these emissions."

The majority of complaints, it insists, don't "reach the 1 000 mark".

Abader refutes this. His team "conducted investigations at all hours of the day and night over a period of several months and can confirm the nature of the odours emanate … from the FG landfill site".

Zeederberg has no doubt either, pointing out how an air quality monitoring device located in nearby Glen Austin and within 500m of the FG site "confir ms that the one-hour exposure levels specified by the Air Quality Act are exceeded continuously.

"It indicates those people close to the site are living in horrendous conditions and it should increase over time as the landfill site expands."

At Lanette Hughes' stately Midstream home, the mother-of-two describes how last week, her 11-year-old son's nose bled for an hour. "It happens all the time. Our children live at the doctors."

Like many of her neighbours, she has installed expensive air purifiers throughout her home.

Last year, she lodged a complaint with the Public Protector against the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (GDARD) over the poor administrative process "that's left the door open for unscrupulous companies like Interwaste and their lawyers to use loopholes" to pollute.

Interwaste is now locked in a court battle with GDARD over the validity of its licence for the landfill. It maintains its licence "continues in perpetuity, given defects in the licence itself ".

GDARD spokesperson Andile Gumede says it has issued several compliance notices, instructing Interwaste to cease all activities since it was operating illegally, without a valid licence from November 2015.

"Interwaste then launched a review application seeking the compliance notice and MEC's decision be set aside… GDARD has and is working with DEA to ensure this matter is dealt with within the law," Gumede says.

Hughes claims Interwaste "bullies" residents who speak out. "There are other contributors to the pollution, they are the major contributors.

"It's the distinctive smell of the gases," interjects Sheriffs. "It's this hydrogen sulphide rotten egg smell, mixed with a chemical smell.

"It's asphyxiating. Interwaste is trying to make out that we're a bunch of rich spoilt people fighting them but people all over have been complaining for years." "The (FG landfill) site is operated in accordance with landfill management best practice and applicable legislation," says Allen de Villiers, the head of its group legal services department.

"This includes the implementation of measures to ensure any potential environmental or health impacts are prevented or effectively mitigated, including the covering of the site's leachate dam (a first for South Africa), the diversion of certain potentially odorous waste streams from the site, and the installation of a stateof-the-art landfill gas extraction and flaring system.

"Interwaste has proactively monitored both upstream and downstream borehole water on site for the past 10 years, to ensure the landfill has no effect on the groundwater and contamination does not take place.

"The results indicate the groundwater remains unaffected by the landfilling operation... We've also commissioned several independent scientific studies, the results of which confirm emissions don't have an impact on human health or well-being. It's suggested pollution in the area be investigated in an unbiased, scientific manner, with due regard to all contributing factors... Compliance with such a plan should be facilitated by the authorities in a constructive rather than adversarial manner. Interwaste doesn't dispute the existence of complaints or the pollution problem. What is in dispute is the cause... There is no scientific evidence to link Interwaste to the pollution complained of... The authorities and residents are consistently unable to provide any evidence to support their allegations against FG Landfill.

"The landfill is situated in close proximity to a number of potential sources of pollution... Interwaste representatives meet with community representatives regularly where matters concerning the landfill site are discussed in an open, cordial fashion."

Saturday Star




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