South Africans win ruling against steel polluter

| September 24, 2013

(GIN)—A major steel producer has been ordered to turn over documents about the environmental impact of its two South African facilities which activists say poisoned the air and water as well as left a trail of hazardous waste.

Activists alleged that water from 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 Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance or VEJA, described the waste ponds as “lakes of poison.”

For years, communities living in the shadow of the plants in the Vaal Triangle, an area of heavy industry and mining in southern Gauteng province, have complained of water pollution. In 2004, they banded together to create VEJA.

Their requests to ArcelorMittal South Africa or AMSA, for documents on the illegal dumping, were ignored.

“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.”

Recently, a Johannesburg high court judge agreed and ruled the company must turn over its documents.

VEJA’s lawyers applauded the decision.

“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 “will be consulting with our legal team on the appropriate course of action.”

Investigative reporter Richard Smallteacher researched the South Africa story for CorpWatch, a non-profit which promotes human, environmental, social and worker rights by holding corporations accountable for their actions.

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