Waste Management, Medical Waste Problems and the Implementation of the National Environmental Management Waste Act: briefing by Department of Environmental Affairs

Water and Sanitation

11 May 2010
Chairperson: Mr P Mathebe (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Environmental Affairs briefed the Committee on the problems in the management of Healthcare Risk Waste and the enforcement of legislation to prevent the illegal disposal of waste. Based on Gauteng’s achievements, the Department had in 2005 conducted a national study to review waste levels and capacity to treat it. The study showed that treatment capacity exceeded waste generation production. However, generation of waste increased in 2007: a study showed that waste generation had increased from 31 000 tons to 42 000 tons in two years. The available waste treatment facilities could only cover part of the waste with a deficit of 6 000 tons, because of the closure of excess capacity facilities in 2005 and the closure in 2008 of incinerators for failure to comply with the National Environment Management Act. The Department had resorted to a Highly Hazardous landfill site in Gauteng. The capacity deficit was also the result of poor maintenance, overloading, and manipulation of the industry. Unhealthy competition resulted in the illegal storage and dumping of waste. Health Care Risk Waste management service providers required, before 2009, three authorisations. The National Environmental Management: Waste Act was an attempt to streamline the process.


The Department also presented the case of burial of Health Care Risk Waste at Welkom by Wasteman, an independent waste company, in collusion with Maximus Bricks. The investigation, in which the EMI was working closely with the Commercial Crime Branch of the South African Police Service and the National Prosecuting Authority, was continuing and seven arrests had already been made, including that of the chief executive officer of Wasteman.


Members were concerned about regulations governing compliance in the private waste management industry, and asked about the interaction between the Department of Environmental Affairs and the Department of Health. The latter was the prime producer of the waste and the Department that awarded tenders to private companies for waste disposal. Members questioned the closure of facilities around the country as well as the future directions that would be taken. Members were concerned that the presentation’s focus was Gauteng and asked for more information on the other provinces. The Chairperson was appalled that there were no Environmental Management Inspectors in municipalities.

Meeting report

Presentation by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) on waste management, medical waste problems and the implementation of the National Environmental Management: Waste Act of 2008

Ms Kelello Ntoampe, Acting Chief Director, Waste, Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), briefed the Committee on problems with Healthcare Risk Waste (HCRW) management and the legislation that governed the industry. Gauteng’s statistical project was very important as it had been the lead province in HCRW. Gauteng had also set emission regulations for HCRW. The DEA had built on Gauteng’s achievements and in 2005 had conducted a study at the national level to review waste levels and capacity to treat waste. The 2005 study showed that treatment capacity was above waste generation production; however, generation of waste increased in 2007. A quick study was done in which it was found that waste generation had increased from 31 000 tons to 42 000 tons in two years. The available waste treatment facilities could only cover part of the waste with a deficit of 6 000 tons. This was partially due to the closure of excess capacity facilities in 2005 and the closure in 2008 of a large incinerator in Gauteng due to non-compliance with the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA). Other incinerators were also closed due to non-compliance. The DEA had requested an emergency stop-gap measure of using a Highly Hazardous (HH) landfill site in Gauteng to deposit the waste. Such sites were not used widely due to the cost. The DEA did not favour the measure, but had taken it because of the emergency.


The capacity deficit was also due to poor maintenance, overloading, manipulation of the industry and illegal storage and dumping of waste. Unhealthy competition in the industry resulted in the latter. The industry was plagued by management issues and many facilities were not compliant with authorisation regulations in the Environmental Conservation Act (ECA) and the Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Act (APPA). Before 2009, three authorizations were needed by HCRW management service providers, namely an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) authorisation from the province, an ECA waste permit and an APPA air quality emission rate authorisation from the DEA at national level. The promulgation of the National Environmental Management: Waste Act (NEMWA) was an attempt to streamline the process.


In terms of short term intervention the Western Cape (WC) and Gauteng would increase their capacity, which should meet the capacity shortfall. However more capacity would need to be added because of the projected increases in HCRW generation.


Presentation by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) on Healthcare Risk Waste (HCRW) enforcement

Mr Sonnyboy Bapela, Acting Deputy Director-General, Regulatory Services, DEA, briefed the Committee on enforcement. He focused on the case of burial of HCRW at Welkom, in which Wasteman, an independent waste company, had engaged in the illegal dumping of HCRW through Maximus Bricks.


Documents had been seized from Wasteman offices in Klerksdorp, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and Johannesburg relating to the burial. This had led to the location of other sites at which waste had been buried. The South African Police Service (SAPS) had executed search warrants simultaneously in four provinces in cooperation with the Environmental Management Inspectorate (EMI). Urgent compliance notices were issued to Maximus Bricks and to Wasteman about the clean-up. Also a hydro-geologist was contracted. The investigation was continuing and seven arrests had already been made, including that of the chief executive officer of Wasteman. The EMI was working closely with the Commercial Crime Branch (CCB) of the SAPS and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).



The Chairperson thanked the DEA for its presentations and added that they were concise and succinct.


Mr G Morgan (DA) hoped that the comments raised would inform the policy guidelines being prepared. The problem in the industry was that the DEA had only limited scope over HCRW compliance as it was ultimately the provincial health departments and private companies which signed the performance agreements.  The Department of Health (DoH) needed to give contracts to companies that could deal with waste and that regulation would not work if the DoH gave tenders to companies which could not.


KZN and the Eastern Cape (EC) had month-to-month contracts with service providers which made it hard for companies to build up capacity as they had no certainty of future business. In some cases non-payment by Government exacerbated the issue. He asked what the DEA was doing to discuss these issues with the DoH.


Ms Ntoampe replied that the DEA was engaged with the DoH and concurred that the Department had control only over part of the issue. The DoH was concerned with production of HCRW and the Department of Transport was engaged with the transport of HCRW, with the DEA being concerned only with disposal. The DoH had worked closely with the DEA when it drafted its healthcare risk regulations. Both the DoH and the DEA would use the same regulations or those of the DoH would relate to those of the DEA.


She agreed with the issue around month-to-month contracts and added that they were awarded by the DoH. The Department would try to engage the DoH on these issues and hoped that there would be a mechanism stemming from the policy and regulations to address this. In future there would be a mechanism in which the DoH would have specifications and regulations that included the DEA.


Ms A Lovemore (DA) asked why HCRW had increased from 2005 to 2007 by such a large amount. She agreed that dumping of untreated HCRW in landfills could not be supported, but noted that the incinerator in Gauteng was closed due to longstanding non-compliance and asked why this was not attended to in order to prevent the last minute use of a HH landfill. The EMWA had no provision in place that placed the onus of waste management plans on anyone. As such the burden came down on the private sector that was liable to view it solely from a profit making perspective. She hoped that policy and regulations would include data gathering.


Ms Ntoampe replied that the Department had not focused on the reasons behind the increase in waste, but that it was most likely tied to the increase in HIV/AIDS deaths and the lack of segregation of healthcare general waste and HCRW. In the case of the closing down of Aid Safe in Gauteng, the facility was not closed overnight, but it would have been very difficult to build a new facility in the short time available. The Department was not happy about the decision to deposit waste in HH landfills, but had to take the decision in the light of the circumstances.


She agreed that there was no specific provision about the onus of waste management, but added that the Department did have the responsibility to ensure that waste was managed in an environmentally sensitive manner, which entailed ensuring that there was enough capacity. In 2007 the then Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism  had engaged with industry and told them that the Department did not a state takeover, but that since then the industry had failed and now the Government needed to intervene. Thus the Department now needed to do a study to determine what type of intervention was needed and where it needed to be done. The DEA did have waste information regulations which service providers were legally bound to follow. These would be monitored on a constant basis; this information would be on hand after the Waste information System was in place.


Mr J Skosana (ANC) said that the presentation focused on Gauteng but that the Department was discussing national issues. He asked what was happening in the other provinces as well as for clarity on staff training in other provinces. He asked whether the Department had regulations and these were communicated to the people who needed to know them. 


Ms Ntoampe replied that Gauteng had created specifications, which worked for a while, which the DEA was building on. She agreed that there seemed to be a focus on Gauteng, but added that in presenting the Department had taken what was done in Gauteng with regards to  before 2001, as before this the DEA was not involved in this issue, but wanted to show that there was work on this area preceding their input. Gauteng was mentioned because the provincial government had done these things and now the national Department was considering what it had found and was looking at the country as a whole. There was past inconsistency because there were no national standards; this was being addressed now.


She added that it was industry which needed to comply with regulations. Industry was well aware of the regulations and legislation as both had been work-shopped with industry, which had been given ample opportunity to engage and make submissions, as well as seek clarity on anything that it did not understand.


Mr Bapela added that HCRW inspections were reactive and that pro-active inspections had occurred as a result of hotline tip-offs. This had occurred in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape. Inspections were based on where the issues were.


Ms H Ndude (COPE) said that it was necessary to look at things in terms of an activist state and that the people who were most affected were often the downtrodden. She asked what efforts the DEA was making to form Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) partnerships. She added that what was legal in one province was often illegal in another province and asked what the DEA was doing to counter this. She asked what the DEA was doing to put everyone on equal footing in the industry. The need for constant studies was questioned as there needed to be more action and less studying. 


Ms Ntoampe replied that studies did help and that if not for the 2007 study the Department would not have received information on the increase in waste generation which told them exactly what the problem was. She concurred that the people most affected by waste dumping were the poor and that BEE partnerships with the industry were under he ambit of the DoH which was the tendering authority in most cases.


Ms J Manganye (ANC) asked how often the DEA did provincial inspections and whether the department had people in provinces. The department had left the problem for too long before acting. She asked what the role of the department was in mine emissions and what was in the documents seized from Wasteman’s Johannesburg offices.


Ms Ntoampe replied that mine emissions were regulated by the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) and the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR).


Mr Bapela reiterated that mine emissions were the responsibility of the DMR.


Ms Ntoampe added that mining waste regulations were under the MPRDA and that the only portion that the DEA dealt with was the remediation of pollution for some reason.


Mr Bapela stated that enforcement was focused on the WC and Gauteng, but added that the EMI had a network of inspectors comprised of local, provincial and national spheres. In municipalities there were people who were undergoing training. Provincial and local government were used to conduct inspections in the spirit of co-operative government. He added that the he could not comment on the documents seized from Wasteman offices as they formed part of an ongoing criminal investigation.  


Mr Skosana asked what the current status of the cases pending was.


Mr Bapela replied that there were cases against a number of companies which were going to trial.


Ms Lovemore said that in Port Elizabeth the medical waste generated had to be transported to East London for incineration and that some had to go to Bloemfontein. In the past there a transfer station in Port Elizabeth where the days waste would be collected and then sent out; however this had been closed, which meant hat many doctors had to send their waste out immediately at a higher cost, which was simply unaffordable.


Ms Ndude asked if the DEA had health inspectors and if the Department was only acting because the issue was now exposed to the media.


Mr Bapela replied that health inspectors fell under the DoH and the National Health Act of 2003.


Mr Morgan said that having incinerators only in the WC, Gauteng, Free State and the North West provinces presented a geographical problem. There was no such thing as a safe incinerator in terms of emissions and the best that could be done was to minimise emissions. He asked whether all incinerators were in compliance with the APPA. He noted that currently anatomical waste could only be incinerated and asked whether the Department was looking at other alternative treatment options as it moved forward as 50 percent of anatomic waste was placentas.


Ms Ntoampe replied that alternative methods of waste disposal would be looked at by industry as the DEA only prescribed legal requirements; it was up to the industry to select compliant technologies.


The Chairperson stated that talk of companies cutting corners implied that there were flaws in the tendering process and asked what the characteristics of a HH landfill site were. He asked whether measures had been taken in these landfills to measure that groundwater was not contaminated and whether the department had established if local communities had been affected. He asked if this was the case whether compensation of these communities by companies had occurred.


Ms Ntoampe replied that there were 1,137 waste management facilities, but only two HH landfills. This was due to the design of them being extremely complicated with stoppage layers, absorption layers and pollution mitigation measures. With regard to the cutting of corners, the DEA had sat with industry and given them the specifications; clear standards were being formulated, emission standards for burn facilities were already in place and non-burn facility standards would be in place by February 2010. From now on people who tendered would be chosen based on competence.


HH landfills were characterised by access control, the use of structured containment layers making use of geo-synthetics and other materials to avoid contamination to the surrounding area. Individuals were required to wear protective gear when entering the site. Groundwater was definitely protected as there was leakage pumping facility, with boreholes surrounding the facilities in order to serve as test areas for contamination to the surrounding area. 


Mr Skosana stated that the Department should present further on the other provinces by July and that it should open up their network in order to get information on the other provinces. The DEA was a national department, which was supposed to deal with national issues. The EMI needed to be explained in detail as to how it operated.


The Chairperson stated that he actually shivered when he heard that there were no EMI inspectors in municipalities.


Mr Bapela replied that municipal health inspectors were regulated by bylaws, but that in the provinces the same legislation at national was used. Health inspectors were engaged with. There was continuous monitoring of illegal activities be it through the municipal health inspectors, provincial EMI inspectors or their national counterparts. The three spheres of Government made sure that compliance inspections were carried out.


Ms Manganye said that the disjuncture between municipal bylaws and provincial and national laws could create a loop-hole for non-compliance. 


Ms Lovemore asked when the study being done on what facilities were needed would be completed.


Ms Ntoampe replied that the study was currently just a proposal.


Mr Morgan asked whether the producer of the HCRW in the Welkom case could be pursued.


Mr Bapela replied that they may, as the Department had a responsibility of duty of care. All people involved in the illegal activity were arrested and investigations into this matter were ongoing.


The Chairperson thanked the DEA delegation for a detailed and informative presentation.


The meeting was adjourned.


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