Thor Chemicals: discussion


27 July 1998
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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report

27 July 1998

The purpose of the meeting was for the committee to discuss the issue of Thor Chemicals at Cato Ridge as a preparation for the meeting of this committee, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, the Department of Agriculture, Water Affairs and Forestry, the Department of Labour, the EJNF and Thor Chemicals on 17 August 1998.

The Chairperson, Ms Mahlangu, outlined the problem surrounding the stockpiles of mercury containers and mercury sludge. She emphasised the need to investigate monitoring and control and for steps to minimise risks. Also there was the need to initiate a meeting between the workers and community concerned, Thor and the department.

Contributions from the members of the committee were asked for.

Mrs Van der Merwe (ANC) queried the status of the audit that was to consolidate the fragmented environmental legislation. The Chairperson asked Mr. Mshamba, a representative of the department to give a report–back on the audit at the following meeting.

Mr. Le Roux (NP) pointed out the need for a complete environmental management strategy that could be applied to the whole country before the Thor issue could be dealt with effectively.

Mr Richards (ANC) felt that, of the two options open to Thor, incineration might not be financially viable, especially since the incinerator would be redundant after the mercury was disposed of. The other option is to return imported mercury to the destination from which it was sent. This does not apply to mercury originating from within the country.

Mr September (ANC) prioritised the cost to the environment and community, rather than the financial cost. He was sure that a use could be found for the incinerator after the mercury had been disposed of.

Another committee member stated that an incinerator is also a cause of pollution – an example being Waste-tech in Port Elizabeth. On these grounds he felt that the mercury should be ‘returned to the sender’.

The Chairperson noted that Thor had been warned not to import waste mercury from as early as the early 1980s.

Mr September was under the impression that the department had a history of not being firm with Thor, and that at least this committee should take a strong stance against them.

Mr de Wet (NP) felt that a knowledge of the cost of the two options was necessary before any decisions could be made effectively. He also asked whether there were any laws that could be applied against Thor.

Mr Mfayela (IFP), who had recently visited the Cato Ridge plant, recommended that a serious study be made of the impact that Thor had on the environment and community. He suggested that the Department of Health be approached to undertake the study on a professional basis.

Mrs Van der Merwe asked how far the steering committee had got in appointing a team of experts that would investigate Thor. The Chairperson answered by saying that the department was still in the process of compiling a list of experts and were also waiting for a project proposal from Sweden.

Mr Le Roux (NP) felt that since the law was unclear, the committee should stand firm on the fact that steps should be taken to resolve the issue.

Mr Richards reiterated the fact that the committee was ineffective without a management strategy for the country, and that plans should progress.

The committee agreed that a letter should be sent to Thor asking them for a plan of action.

Mrs. Chalmers (ANC) questioned the commitment of the steering committee.
The Chairperson said that there had not been a quorum at the last two meetings, hence the absence of any minutes. She also explained that the members of the steering committee were very busy and had very little time available for the committee. Mr. Mfayela suggested that they resolve that the steering committee is not working and that it be reconstituted.

Both the Chairperson and Mrs. Van der Merwe felt that there was a need for urgency and that the Portfolio Committee should take action with respect to the steering committee. However the Chairperson felt that the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism should be given a chance to explain themselves at the meeting on Monday before action was taken.

Mr Le Roux felt that obtaining a court order was necessary for anything to be done seriously. The Chairperson suggested that a law advisor should be consulted before the 17 August meeting.

At this point the Chairperson summarised motions that had been taken up by the committee:
A letter would be sent to Thor asking for an indication of their plan of action.
An assessment of Thor’s impact on the community and environment would be carried out as suggested by Mr. Mfayela.
If it was found on Monday that the steering committee was making no progress, they would be reconstituted.

At this point, Mr Smidt, a legal adviser for parliament, was invited to the meeting. The Chairperson asked him what the Portfolio Committee could do to litigate against the perpetrations of Thor Chemicals. Mr Smidt answered that, pending new legislation, they would have to make use of existing tools.
Possibilities were section 24 of The Constitution, the 31A directive of the Environment Conservation Act, clause 35 of the Management Bill and that the committee could make an interim law.

The Chairperson requested proposals from the members of the committee, the Minister and the department, which would be given to Mr Smidt on Monday to convert to legal wording. This would be distributed to the committee by Tuesday.



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