Durban – Internationally respected air quality experts have been brought in by a civic association to investigate the cause of the stink coming from the Shongweni landfill site and to help prepare for a possible court battle.
The team from the multinational engineering firm WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff will include environmental and air quality specialists Dr Jon McStay and Dr Lisa Ramsay.
McStay holds a doctorate from the University of Cape Town and is the director at WSP while Ramsay, who holds a masters and PhD from Cambridge University, is based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
They are being funded through the efforts of the Upper Highway Air non-profit organisation.
The NPO’s attorney Charmane Nel said the objective was to access the waste management company EnviroServ’s data as so much was still unexplained.
“We want to know what waste was there when the pH dropped? We want access to those waste streams,” she said.
EnviroServ has disputed allegations that fumes from the landfill site have had a health impact on surrounding communities but the 10000 members of the NPO are unconvinced.
Many claim they suffer persistent headaches, respiratory problems, sore throats and coughing because of the smell.
Addressing a public meeting on Wednesday, Ramsay said an investigation would include soil and water impact assessments as well as an air and odour impact assessment to identify the “odour compound in the air experienced by the community”.
“We are going to use various approaches so that we can present findings that are validated.
“So we are going to be using a monitoring and modelling approach,” she said.
The NPO has purchased two air and meteorological monitoring stations to assist with the investigation and Ramsay has also volunteered to use her own.
Some of the technology has been brought in from abroad and has never been used in a court case before but Ramsay said would be admissible.
She said the gas that had been identified by EnviroServ as causing the smell was hydrogen sulphide (H2S) which gave a rotten smell at all landfills.
“You might be smelling H2S at times but you would not be experiencing the health impacts you are experiencing now if it was just H2S.
“So we are not listening to what we have been told, we are going into this investigation with an objective to determine which gas is causing these health impacts,” she told the meeting.
She said there was a possibility that they could find a cocktail of toxic gases as the cause of health symptoms.
To get samples for the investigation, which could take up to four months, the WSP team would need access to the landfill site and waste inventory data and Nel said negotiations with EnviroServ were under way.
EnviroServ chief executive Dean Thompson has reiterated the company’s commitment to remedying the situation and has brought in their own experts to assist.
“EnviroServ is currently in discussion with the Upper Highway NPO regarding possible collaboration between the experts,” he said.
The EnviroServ team and the NPO committee have met numerous times since the Department of Environmental Affairs issued the first compliance notice in August following intermittent malodour and health-related complaints.
The department instructed EnviroServ to revert to treatment regimens as dictated by the previous minimum requirements, of treating incoming waste to a pH of 9.
Thompson conceded that the pH levels on the site had dropped since 2013, creating an environment conducive to sulphurous emissions but he said those gases could not have made people sick.
Nel said the findings from the WSP’s study would be used as court evidence in a battle to get the landfill closed down.
“First they (EnviroServ) said it wasn’t them causing the odour now they are saying it’s not their fault.
“The reality is that there is a mess and they have to fix it. We don’t want a situation where the remedy creates more problems than there are,” said Nel.
She is assisting the organisation probono.
The Hillcrest Private Hospital is also installing an air-monitoring device and the management has written to Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa expressing concern about the fumes from the landfill.