Resolution to summon Minister; Marion Island Research Expedition challenges; with Deputy Minister

Environmental Affairs

04 September 2018
Chairperson: Mr P Mapulane (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

Portfolio Committee on Environmental Affairs received a briefing from the Department of Environmental Affairs on the Marion Island Research Expedition and the related challenges.

The Committee resolved to summon the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Ms Edna Molewa, to appear before it on Tuesday 11 September 2018. The Committee was disappointed with the Minister’s letter to the Speaker of the National Assembly requesting a postponement of the second reading of the National Environmental Management Laws Amendment (NEMLA) Bill that was scheduled for debate later in the day. The Members condemned the withdrawal of the Bill at the last minute before its consideration by the National Assembly. The Bill had been adopted by the Committee on 19 June 2018; hence the Minister had enough time to raise her reservations with the Committee. Her request to postpone the debate on the NEMLA Bill was only brought to the attention of the Chairperson a day prior.

The Committee was further frustrated by yet another letter addressed to the Committee by the Minister requesting for the postponement of a scheduled meeting for the day on “Briefing by the Department of Environmental Affairs on the understanding of the rhino horn demand management and preparations for CITES”. The Committee felt that the matters cited as the reasons for the postponement were not the initial reasons, but rather that the responsible Deputy Director-General would be out of the country. Members felt that the Minister could have presented her reasons during the parliamentary briefing on the matter rather than through letters.

Following media reports in an article titled, “The iceman cometh with an axe" of 07 January 2018, numerous concerns were raised in the public domain about Marion Island. The Department of Environmental Affairs was committed to the improvement of living and working conditions on the Island. The current situation on Marion Island was such that expedition members were not all governed by DEA policies, HR (Human Resources) and related policies. Applicable institution-specific policies were applied to address any HR or disciplinary related matters, for example, SANSA (South African National Space Agency); SAWS (South African Weather Service); and the DST (Department of Science and Technology).

Members sought more information on whether the Department of Environmental Affairs had the 9-page memorandum signed by the scientists on the island about their grievances, the journalist who was taken to the ombudsman, food stocks that were stolen from the warehouse in Cape Town, the medics’ qualifications, why the budget did not allow for the replacement of generators, and why the generators had to be patched repeatedly.

Meeting report

Opening remarks by the Chairperson

The Chairperson welcomed the Members and the Deputy Minister for Environmental Affairs, Ms Barbara Thomson, and informed them of the Minister for Environmental Affairs Ms Edna Molewa’s letter to the Speaker of the National Assembly to request the postponement of the second reading of the National Environmental Management Laws Amendment (NEMLA) Bill that was scheduled for debate later in the day.

The Chairperson informed the Members of yet another letter addressed to the Committee by the Minister requesting the postponement of a scheduled meeting for the day on “Briefing by the Department of Environmental Affairs on the understanding of the rhino horn demand management and preparations for CITES”.

The Chairperson felt that the matters cited as the reasons for postponement were not the initial reasons, but rather that the responsible Deputy Director-General would be out of the country.

The Members condemned the withdrawal of the Bill on the last minute before its consideration by the National Assembly. They felt that since the Bill had been adopted by the Committee on 19 June 2018, the Minister had had all the time to raise her reservations with the Committee instead of waiting for the last minute. Her request to postpone the debate on the NEMLA Bill was only brought to the attention of the Chairperson a day prior.

The Members felt that the Minister could have presented her reasons during the Parliamentary briefing on the matter, rather than through letters which were against Parliamentary decorum.

The Committee resolved to summon the Minister of Environmental Affairs to appear before it on Tuesday 11 September 2018 to clarify the various matters.

Briefing by the Department of Environmental Affairs: The Marion Island Research Expedition and related challenges.

Ms Judy Beaumont, Deputy Director-General, Oceans and Coasts, DEA, took the Committee through the presentation. She appreciated the cooperation received from the Department of Public Works, particularly the unit which dealt with Infrastructure and the Antarctica Region. She apologised for the absence of some members of her delegation who, because of the short notice since returning from the COP9 conference in Nairobi, Kenya, were unable to attend this meeting.

Following media reports in an article titled, “The iceman cometh with an axe" of 07 January 2018, some of the concerns raised about Marion Island in the public domain included the following;

  • Unstable team members;
  • Critical food shortages — "we are running dangerously low on food";
  • Faulty generators — "2 of our 3 power generators have broken down with irreparable damage and our last main generator is going to break down..." ; and
  • Conflict between two team members — "frying pan being used in the fracas and the aggressor thrashing the victim's room with an axe..."

There were also additional concerns raised by the Portfolio Committee on Environmental Affairs (PCEA) on 06 February 2018 about the Marion Island. They included;

  • DEA (O&C) — Recruitment and selection processes, including a screening protocol;
  • Team leader selection, team communication and team dynamics;
  • Food shortages, medical support, medical supplies, equipment and health risks and
  • General maintenance of the base, maintenance of generators and communications infrastructure.

Positive aspects of this arrangement

It was proposed that chefs be entitled to a salary level 12, because of the high cost of their training (often more than R 300 000), and the fact that they worked longer than anyone else on the island in preparing the food for everyone on the island.

  • All employees were Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) employees, i.e. up to 2 years ago, as they would sign a contract with the DEA.
  • Application of DEA policies, including HR and relevant policies was much easier.
  • The Surgeon General was responsible for all health-related matters of expedition members, and Medics/Medical personnel in all bases were reporting to him.
  • Negative implication of this change was that all other expedition members who were not DEA contracted, had to have their own medical insurances.

The current situation was such that expedition members were not all governed by DEA policies, HR (Human Resources) and related policies. Applicable institution-specific policies were applied to address any HR or disciplinary related matter, for example, SANSA (South African National Space Agency); SAWS (South African Weather Service); DST (Department of Science and Technology), etcetera.

However, the DEA was still responsible for the evacuation of all personnel, and they had to claim from the insurance of each of the participating institutions. To that end, there was an agreement between the DST and the DEA on Medical insurance.

Food Management Interventions

  • A professional chef at deputy director salary level (Level 12) was appointed and deployed during the emergency voyage;
  • Accurate food costing and quantities;
  • Food stock rotation, i.e. opening stock and closing stock;
  • Management of frozen foods through application of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) against pathogens, for example Chronobacter; Listeria, Salmonella, Eschereria coli and Hepatitis A etcetera;
  • Minimisation of food wastage was controlled through forecasting; and
  • developed weekly menus, considering appropriate nutritional values, with careful consideration of allergies that some people may have within the group.

Maintenance Reports

Bulk diesel fuel lines

There were a few leaks pointed out by the existing overwintering technical year team at the bulk fuel diesel storage tanks. The NPDW Mechanical artisans’ team attended to the problem, and the leaks were stopped by tightening connection points in the systems.

It was recommended that the bulk diesel storage tanks should be serviced, cleaned out properly, prepared and painted with the correct type of paint on the outside of the diesel tank installations during the 2019/20 take-over voyages.

DEA and NDPW senior officials were engaging in the matter and it would be finalised during the next engagement between the two parties which was scheduled for the 15 September 2018.

Clean and warm water supply to the base

It was found that the two filters were closed but bypassed with a valve that meant that the water did not flow through the filters to filter and clean the water. The year team members were shown the correct procedures and sequences of closing valves by a DEA engineer, as well as how and what to do when the filters were clogged. It was emphasized as well that filters had to be cleaned regularly by one of the NDPW mechanical members during the annual take-over periods.

It was found that the overflow valves were closed and should be kept open so that the tanks could overflow and keep water fresh for drinking purposes in case of an emergency.

Alarm finding

The main fire alarm panel and all 10 Remote Display unit displays were not functional and the main fire alarm panel had an earth fault. Wires were disconnected at numerous points on the system such as the main fire alarm panel, 10 x Remote Display Units (RDU's) and some sensors.

Wires were cut and two sirens were disconnected. When the DPW and DEA emergency voyage teams left the island, the science block alarm system was not operating.

Summary of incidents on Marion Island

A narration was given of an incident where one colleague vandalised another colleague’s laptop with an axe because of a love triangle they were involved in. Apparently, the woman involved had rejected a marriage proposal from one of the parties and he retaliated against the other party. The incident was however misreported that the individual had attacked the other person and not his laptop. The fight was between the Environmental Coordinating Officer (ECO) and Senior Met Observer

On the 22 July 2017, the day of the first confrontation between the two colleagues the DEA issued a warning letter. This was after consultations with HR. The Wellness unit was requested to assist in resolving the matter. After concluding the initial investigation on 03 November 2017, the Environmental Control Officer (ECO) who served as a Deputy Team Leader was relieved of his duties.

On 08 Dec 2017, after further interventions a letter of apology was received from the ECO which included an admission of guilt regarding the axe incident.

On 22 February 2018, it was established that the sexual harassment allegations were a retaliatory stance against the Senior Meteorologist.

On the 20 June 2018, a debriefing session for the M74 expedition team was held co-chaired by DST and the DEA. A set of recommendations from that meeting were currently under review to find lasting solutions.

Considerations on the Marion Island debacle

Remote investigation was conducted and statements were received from witnesses. The DEA requested a very experienced expedition doctor at SANAE (South African National Antarctic Expedition) to speak with and assess the persons involved. Wellness was contacted and made calls to the team. An apology was made verbally by the accused during a team meeting.

The DEA felt that the team needed some conflict resolution tactics because they were divided about the seriousness of the event. The persons involved were referred for counselling by wellness. This opportunity was open to the entire team.

It was resolved that the warring parties be removed from Marion Island. The persons were ship-based for the remainder of the voyage up until the return to South Africa on 7 May 2018. This was a precautionary measure to avoid the new incoming team being negatively influenced.

The following plan was instituted to coincide with the SA Agulhas II docking in Durban at the back-end of the International Indian Expedition 2 (IIOE 2) — Oct / Nov 2017:

  • AMSOL (African Marine Solutions) was consulted for determining the most economic voyage deployment strategy and the cost was R 2.1m;
  • It was also determined that it would cause a one day delay for the Antarctic voyage;
  • Cost recovery of about half of the R 2.1m during the Antarctic voyage was also done;
  • It was arranged that 40 scientists should disembark in Durban and be flown to Cape Town;
  • SAPS Border Police (Water-wing) were consulted and four policemen were deployed for this "special voyage". They were at the quayside in the Port of Durban when the vessel arrived in Durban in Nov 2018.
  • The voyage never took place due to consideration of the current financial situation and "remote" counselling. 

The DEA was committed to the improvement of living and working conditions on Marion Island.

The Department has since employed a South African expert with 34 years of experience in matters around the Antarctic and Islands for a period of 12 months. He started in July 2018. His main contribution was to develop a System of Procedures (SOPS) for all DEA operations, both general and Island or Antarctic specific subjects.

To assist in the development of a framework to improve the DEA’s relationship with the country’s national and international stakeholders, the Department was seriously considering reverting to how the program was managed before because that would eliminate a host of new problems like central recruitment and contracting.

The DEA’s relationship with the Department of Public Works (DPW) has improved tremendously over the past couple of months. The new leadership in the DPW was working very closely with the DEA on Antarctic and Island matters, and the next scheduled engagement on the 15 September 2018 was a case in hand.

Discussion

The Chairperson asked if they had the 9-page memorandum signed by the scientists on the island about their grievances, and whether they could provide a copy to the Committee. He asked for a response on the various matters raised in the newspaper article.

Ms J Edwards (DA) asked about the journalist who was taken to the ombudsman by the DEA and whether this was because of his exaggeration of the facts in the matter. She wondered, if in the axe incident, the individual also trashed the other party’s room as was reported earlier. She inquired whether there was a medic or paramedic on Marion Island and what their qualifications and experience levels were, particularly because he/she was working in a special and remote area. She asked how old the generators were and where they came from, and whether they broke down because of their age or a lack of maintenance. She asked further whether this situation could have been foreseen. Concerning the leaks, where did the leaks leak into and was it the soil or the ocean? She wondered about the rationale of installing steel pipes next to the ocean because rusting could occur.

Mr R Purdon (DA) asked why the budget did not allow for the replacement of generators, and why they had to keep being patched. He wondered if there was spare fuel anywhere on the complex and where the water came from. He asked if the heating was only from the generators or if they were from solar heating or the utilisation of wind energy. He asked what the psychological requirements and fitness of the people on the base were.

Mr S Makhubele (ANC) asked what would be done about the old generator that was about to fail.

Ms Beaumont responded that the Department had the memorandum from the scientists and would make it available to the Committee once they had addressed the matters therein. The staffing models were being reviewed to conform to modern standards and practices.

The Chairperson interjected and asked about the food stocks that were stolen from the warehouse in Cape Town.

Ms Beaumont confirmed that most of what was stolen was primarily liquor belonging to a Norwegian crew. The Department had now installed security cameras at the warehouse in the East Pier which was where the foodstuffs were stored. Additional security measures had also been implemented. The Department discovered that an intern was stealing the liquor products and selling them at his educational institution. There was limited solar power in the islands, but on Marion Island wind power generation was discouraged because it affected the birds in many ways.

The Chairperson inquired how sewage was treated.

Ms Beaumont said there was a small sewage treatment plant on Marion Island as well as a water desalination plant. This was in addition to a dam with a 2.4 km long pipeline linked to various points on the island. The generators were replaced and maintained as per a cycle and not on a needs basis. Psychologists were provided to the Department for the provision of psychological support to the staff.

The Department was learning from the experience of other countries that had staff in remote places. The Department was not going to take the journalist to court or to the ombudsman again for his misleading and false articles on DEA, the relationships in the Department and for misquoting facts.

The Chairperson asked which specific parts of the journalists’ latest story was untrue and if they would take him back to the ombudsman.   

Ms Beaumont reiterated that they would compile a list of all the inaccuracies in the articles and send them to the Chairperson after the session.  

Ms Thomson commented that the Committee should not always rely on media reports as they were often inaccurate and exaggerated. She said that the Department would urgently attend to the problems of food shortages, staff conflicts and protocol recruitment.  

The Chairperson said he had picked up a few questions that had not been answered particularly about the qualifications of medical personnel.

Ms Beaumont answered that the islands had a Medical Orderly and not a paramedic. These were people with a nursing degree or diploma and had advanced cardiac and trauma support qualifications with more than three years of experience.

Ms Edwards asked again if the diesel leaked into the soil or the ocean.

Ms Beaumont responded that there were ‘catchment bonds’ which ensured that the leaks did not get into the environment.

Ms Thomson pleaded that everyone should try to mend the relationship between the Department and the Committee as it seemed to have ‘soured’.

The Chairperson lauded the presentation and noted that there had been a significant improvement between the report presented and the previous report presented a week prior. He asked when the next expedition to Marion Islands would be.

Ms Beaumont said that the next expedition would be on Thursday of that week.

The Chairperson said the Committee was investigating the possibility of going to oversight at the islands either before or after the impending elections.

The Chairperson announced that there was to be no meeting the following day and that the next session would be the following week on Tuesday. This would be a meeting with the Minister for Environmental Affairs. On Wednesday of that week, the Committee would receive a briefing from SANParks (South African National Parks).

The meeting was adjourned.  

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