Health and Safety

The fixation on growth compromises people's healthThis country is focusing on the growth of the economy at the expense of people's health and the land's health, says sociologist Jackie Cock.

Writing in the June 2008 edition of the South African Labour Bulletin, Cock says that smallholders who live in Steel Valley around Arcelor Mittal (once Iscor) in Vanderbijlpark, like Strike Matsepo, face financial ruin and health problems because of the pollution of the groundwater, soil and air.

Over a period of about 40 years the steel mill discharged its waste water into unlined effluent dams and the nearby Rietspruit River while its chimneys spewed tons of poisonous sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide into the air.

Cock believes that Iscor was allowed to get away with the extensive pollution because it was creating jobs and supplying much-needed steel to stimulate other downstream industries in the growing apartheid economy.

She says apartheid legislation even “allowed official ‘exemptions’ for large industries like Iscor and Sasol to pollute beyond the general standards”! Post-apartheid, environmental monitoring has improved a little.

But Cock believes that government departments could have done more.In 2000 Iscor bought out 350 smallholdings.

The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) "colluded with Iscor in withholding information about the nature and extent of the pollution from Steel Valley residents," Cock says.

As a result Iscor only paid for property – "there was no compensation for the loss of crops and livestock or health damages," she says.The formation of the Steel Valley Crisis Committee (SVCC) in 2002 saw some of the remaining families getting together to demand compensation from Iscor.

But the buyout in 2000 had weakened the community. Other smallholders worked for Iscor and felt unable to take it on. Isolated and with limited financial support, the SVCC lost the court case and failed to win compensation from the steel giant for their financial losses and their poor health that they say are caused by decades of contamination.

Cock believes that if trade unions like Numsa had worked with the Steel Valley community, the smallholders would have had a better chance of success.

Is Numsa up to this? What are we saying about other Numsa-organised companies that are contaminating workers and surrounding communities? Are we uniting with those communities and speaking out? Or are growth and job creation more important than the long-term health of workers and neighbouring communities?

Strike Matsepo – a dream became a nightmare!

Matsepo with his surviving cows. The peaceful scene hides the deadly contaminants lurking in the soil and the water.

Matsepo once worked for Coca Cola at Vanderbijlpark.When he cashed in his pension and bought a smallholding for his extended family next to Iscor (now Arcelor Mittal) in 1993 he thought his life was sorted.

Although he had heard talk of the area being polluted, he thought this was just a "myth to keep black people out of the area".

But since moving to the smallholding, his sister became ill, had high levels of cadmium in her blood and subsequently died.

His brother lives in constant pain and has very high levels of lead in his system. An expert says this is “unusual for a person not employed in the metal industry”.

Matsepo himself has spent long periods in hospital for kidney failure "associated with pollutants known to be in the groundwater," says Cock. In the last 15 years "30 cows have died, as well as 9 calves, 5 sheep, 6 goats, 3 tortoises, 1 pig, 7 dogs, 30 chickens and 4 cats.”

Some animals were born with birth defects.“My body is full of pain,” says Matsepo, “but I am trapped here.

I can’t move and buy a new place with the little money they are offering me for this plot”. (Matsepo interviewed by Jackie Cock, Vanderbijlpark. 22.6.2005)

What evidence is there of environmental pollution caused by Iscor?

The steel giant's slime dams close to Matsepo's smallholding. At one stage they were unlined and leaked deadly metals and cancer-causing chemicals into the groundwater and into the farmers' boreholes.

* A scientific report (The Scorgie Report) of 2004 found that the Vanderbijlpark steel mill was a major source of air pollution, specifically of sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide

* Up to 6 megalitres of polluted water per day was discharged from the steel mill into unlined effluent dams and along an unlined canal into the Rietspruit River for years.

Heavy metals and cancer-causing chemicals contaminated the groundwater which feeds the boreholes of the surrounding communities of Steel Valley.

* Research commissioned by local government in 1998 concluded that “almost the entire area has polluted groundwater or soil, which without remediation, renders the area unsuitable for human habitation”.

* The same study found that one out of every three participants complained of serious ailments, including strokes, miscarriages, birth defects, kidney and liver problems, and various types of cancer.

It linked their illnesses to the polluted water. Many of their symptoms pointed to heavy metal poisoning.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the SA Labour Bulletin, Volume 32 No 2 2008 edition.


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