|VEJA activists outside the Johannesburg High Court. Photo courtesy Center for Environmental Rights.|
ArcelorMittal, the global steel giant, has been ordered to hand over documents about the environmental impact of two South African facilities to community activists. The Luxembourg-based company, the largest steel producer in Africa, has been accused of polluting the air and water as well as dumping hazardous waste.
The facilities are located in Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging in the Vaal Triangle, an area of heavy industry and mining in southern Gauteng province, about 60 kilometers from Johannesburg. Both were operated by the South African Iron and Steel Corporation (ISCOR) before they were bought up in 2004 by ArcelorMittal, a company created by the merger of Mittal Steel from India with Arcelor - itself a merger of three companies from France, Luxembourg and Spain.
For years, communities living in the shadow of the plants have complained of water pollution. In 2004, they banded together to create the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) and asked ArcelorMittal South Africa (AMSA) to make public a copy of Environmental Master Plan for the rehabilitation of the Vanderbijlpark site.
Steel Valley Pollution
Johann Dewing, a resident of Steel Valley, a community next to the Vanderbijlpark steel manufacturing plant, joined 15 others to sue ISCOR in 2002 for water pollution.
"Even people visiting us who have been drinking the water have been affected," Dewing told the BBC. "We've all been really badly affected."
The group alleged that water from ISCOR's ten unlined waste ponds seeped into the groundwater and polluted their wells. As a result their crops failed, animals died, and nobody would buy their land.
David Soggott, the lawyer for the group, described the waste ponds as "lakes of poison."
ISCOR settled a number of previous cases in 2000 by buying up the 400 properties from residents but some 150 families were left out of the settlement.
In 2004, ISCOR agreed to settle with other families, but several refused because they felt the company was not giving them fair value for their land.
Eventually the company evicted most of the remaining families and by 2012 just four remained.
"When you visit area nowadays, you can hardly imagine that this used to be a vibrant community with small scale farms, shops, a filling station, a mobile clinic and other communal infrastructure," says Mokoena.
When the company failed to do so, the activists turned to the courts in 2011. In 2012 VEJA also requested records of the company’s Vaal Disposal Site in Vereeniging, alleging that the company illegally had dumped hazardous waste there.
“It is our constitutional right to be aware of the activities of AMSA to be able to know how they are impacting on our health and environment,” said Samson Mokoena, Coordinator at the VEJA. “As communities, we are failing to understand that if such a company is claiming to be responsible, why it would not want to share its plans with us.”
ArcelorMittal South Africa told the court that the documents were out of date and scientifically and technically flawed.
Last week Paul Carstensen, the acting judge in at the Johannesburg high court, said that the company’s argument made it all the more important that the company turn over the documents. “Participation in environmental governance, the assessment of compliance, the motivation of the public, the mobilization of public, the dissemination of information … constitutes a vital collaboration between the State and private entities in order to ensure achievement of constitutional objectives,” he said.
VEJA’s lawyers applauded the ruling. “The court has confirmed that organizations like VEJA are entitled to protect and exercise the right to a healthy environment by seeking information to enable them to assess environmental impacts, and to exercise a watchdog role,” said Robyn Hugo, an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights, a non-profit law clinic based in Cape Town, South Africa.
The company has yet to confirm that it will comply. Themba Hlengani, a ArcelorMittal South Africa spokesman, told Business Day that the company was studying the judgment and that it "will be consulting with our legal team on the appropriate course of action.”
South Africa is not the only country in which ArcelorMittal has been accused of environmental and health and safety impacts. “ArcelorMittal: Going Nowhere Slowly,” a 2009 report by Friends of the Earth and the CEE Bankwatch Network, provides examples from the Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Czech republic, India, Kazakhstan, Liberia, Romania in addition to South Africa.
For example, the 5,000 citizens of Ostrava in the Czech republic, are exposed to concentrations of airborne dust, arsenic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that exceed the legal limits by up to 800 percent. A total of 35 miners were killed in two accidents at the Abaiskaya and Tentekskaya mines in Kazakhstan in 2008.