Faces of sick residents and the long queues in the clinic is what made the Ekurhuleni Environmental Organisation to be curious of the health conditions of the Mzumbe residents. Technically, Lonmin is the main cause of the air pollution in the area.
Western Platinum Refinery (WPR), a division of Lonmin Platinum and currently the 3rd largest refinery in Southern Africa is situated in Platinum Road, Vulcania, Ext2, Brakpan next to Mzumbe.
Mzumbe. is a small, isolated location in between Kwa-Thema and Wright Park (Springs, east of Johannesburg). Mzumbe in Zulu means “winding river”.When entering Mzumbe; a metallic smell welcomes you to the area and suddenly, the place looks like it has a shadow over it. Because people were desperate for houses, they did not take caution of living in a place next to a company that emits dangerous smoke into the air.
The community members of Kwa Thema couldn’t have been happier when they heard that houses were being built for them in Mzumbe, Ekurhuleni. It all started when Lomnin who owns the platinum Refinery in the area wanted to build houses for their workers. Because of municipality interference it was decided that the municipality built the houses instead. By 1999 there were 860 RDB houses in place and families started to move in. What neither the people nor the municipality officials considered was the heavy pollution from the Lomnin Western Platinum Refinery. Now 16 years later the citizen’s health is in a bad state. The pollution together with the poverty and the unemployment makes the area of Mzumbe a hazardous place.
When we go there we see a man in a colourful t-shirt walking in the street. In his hand he is carrying some groceries in a plastic bag. Families sitting outside their houses are staring envious at the grocery bag. They are hungry and desperate. In the air there is a bad smell. Thick fumes come out from the chimney of the Western Platinum Refinery.
We are walking in the street to listen to people’s views about their situation. But no one wants to speak to us. They are scared to because of the risk of being victimised either by the company or the local government. We hand out our contact numbers and tell people that they can be anonymous when they talk with us.
A couple of blocks away from the refinery the clinic is located. It is a one story building extended with containers. We entered to get some information about the community health status. In the waiting area people are queuing to meet the nurses. We try to approach one of the nurses with some questions but the only answer we get is that they are not allowed to speak to us. She refers us to the media official within the health department. When we look closer on her uniform we see Lomnins name and logo.
We move on to the big Lomnin refinery. It is heavily protected, double fenced and cameras. The security person open the gate for us and we ask who to speak to about the pollution from the refinery. She gives us the number to the company´s switchboard. On our way out we spot a warning-sign with all the chemicals that the refinery uses. On the same sign there is a number to be used in case of emergency. We phone the number but no one answers.
As the sun goes down in Kwa-Thema one of us suddenly gets a phone call. It is one of the residents of Mzumbe who decided that she wants to speak to us. She invites us to her house if we agree that she can be anonymous.
“Ever since I arrived at Mzumbe I have picked up that I cough a lot at night and my skin itches a lot. When I went for a consultation at the clinic I was diagnosed with asthma and skin irritation”, she says.
Then she shows us her asthma spray and other medication.
Later on we also get in contact with a field worker from Mzumbe who also did not want her name to be mentioned. She has collected a lot of evidence about the health problems within the community. Doctor´s notes, health certificates and medication precriptions from different community members all piled up in her house. The plan is to give the information to a social worker who she hopes can take it further to the provincial government.
“We have consulted with the Western Platinum about the health issues within the community and they have acknowledged that they are aware of that and will help wherever they can.It has been empty promises thus far”.
When we contact the media department that the nurse at the Mzumbe clinic referred us to they tell us to contact Flap Zisser at the environmental health department. The information he gives us makes us disappointed at the municipalities’ work ethic. Firstly we get to know that before 2010 there were no emission regulations to monitor companies. Secondly, there is a law of minimum standard for emissions but companies have no working air quality monitoring system in place. Thirdly, the municipality depends on companies to appoint independent environmental consultants but how independent are these consultants if they are assigned by the company itself we ask. Flap Zisser tells us that no Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIA) have been published for the community since 2010 on pollution issues. In that way the community does not get any information about the risks they may face. Regarding the Bill of Rights (section 32) people have the right to information, that law is now being violated.
For us as members of EEO (Ekurhuleni Environmental Organisation) it is clear that the municipality is aware of the problem in Mzumbe but as we see it they are not prepared to admit that, and do anything about it.
We approached Lonmin Western Platinum Refinery through their safety officer Thabelo Mokoene. After he realised that we had critical questions about the emissions he turns arrogant and impatient towards us.To our surprise he actually admitted that the company was causing a problem for the area when he said “we are not the only one that is releasing fumes to the area.”
When we ask what the company is doing about the health problems within the community he says: “Lomnin distributed milk and honey between 1999 and 2000 but the project collapsed because of political interference.”
This answer disturbs us because is there anyone today that still really believes that milk and honey actually can cure asthma and dermatitis?
Ekurhuleni Environmental Organisation (EEO) demands that there be an independent investigation concerning the community´s view that they experience health problems caused by Lomnin Western Platinum Refinery.
We also want an independent investigation on whether the company is operating within the agreed emissions standards with no risk to the community. It was also discovered that the company has a waste incinerator, stores hazardous chemicals , and decommissions unused general waste.
Thirdly there has to be an investigation whether the air quality test system within Lomnin Western Platinum Refinery is operational and whether the whole air quality monitoring system of Kwa-Thema is functional.
We as EEO have also decided to ask the Centre for Environmental Rights to assist us make an application using the Promotion Access to Information Act (PAIA), to get more information about Lomnin Western Platinum and its chemicals. EEO will be doing research on other companies including Pilkington Glass South Africa and others, whether they follow minimum standard of emissions.
By The EEO Team
Meshack Mbangula , Mandla Jwili, Zamuxolo Magona, Sihle Phiri, Keke Masina, Molly Mbangula, Ayanda Baloyi, Steven Nkabinde, Sandile Nombeni, Vuyelwa Cindi, Zethu Diko, Sibusiso Buthelezi, Gugu Nkabinde, Mpho Mthembu