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Lawyers acting for residents in South Durban voiced astonishment on Wednesday that the provincial government had authorised the burning of large volumes of Mondi industrial waste next to thousands of homes.
Attorneys Adrian Pole and Angela Andrews of the Legal Resources Centre said it "beggars belief" that Sarah Allen, a senior official of the KwaZulu-Natal department of environment affairs, had accepted arguments that the annual burning of up to 200 000 tons of coal, sludge, ash and wood bark would benefit the environment.
The Legal Resources Centre, which is funded mainly by a Danish foreign aid agency, is a public interest body that provides legal assistance to poor and vulnerable communities.
At issue is the proposed construction of a multi-fuel boiler, which local communities describe as an incinerator, next to the Mondi paper mill in Merebank. The construction is set to be undertaken by Biotrace, a consortium of American and British companies.
Pole told a press conference in Durban on Wednesday that a careful examination of pollution data in the South Durban industrial area "flatly contradicted" claims by Mondi, Biotrace and Allen's department that the burner would not harm the environment.
Pole made the remarks after announcing that the Legal Resources Centre had lodged a legal appeal against the KZN government on behalf of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) and its chairperson, Desmond D'Sa.
In terms of environmental law, the appeal has to first be considered by KZN Environment Minister Narend Singh. If he rejects the appeal, the Legal Resources Centre will take the case to the High Court.
A 35-page appeal document compiled by Pole and Andrews and technical advisor Dr Eugene Cairncross of Cape Town's Peninsula Technikon, suggests that approval of the Mondi/Biotrace burner would be a retrogressive step that would perpetuate the existing high levels of industrial air pollution in South Durban.
They cite a recent report by government consultant Tim Knights, which calls for the phasing out of all "dirty" industrial fuels such as coal and heavy fuel oil.
Knights, a chemical engineer who has worked in the oil and chemical industries in the United Kingdom, Canada and South Africa, wrote a report in 2001 recommending that the environmental department phase out dirty fuel in South Durban within four years and consider charging industries a sulphur dioxide pollution levy.
Knights's report identifies Mondi as the third-largest single source of sulphur dioxide pollution south of the city (after Sapref and Engen) and said several large industries were opposed to switching from coal to Sasol gas, a cleaner-burning fuel source.
Mondi's general manager John Barton said he did not wish to comment until he had seen and studied the appeal document.