People scavenge on a landfill site. File picture: Thobile Mathonsi

Durban - Air quality results presented at a meeting in Hillcrest to determine the source of “toxic air” that was suspected of making community members sick, have been described as “junk science” and “misleading” by environmental activists.

Desmond D'sa and Rico Euripidou, together with about 70 residents from Plantations Estate and other affected areas, met with EnviroServ's senior management, hoping to find answers to “chemical odours” and ailments they have been experiencing, which they believe are a result of the EnviroServ-owned Shongweni landfill site.

Plantations residents say they have been experiencing nausea, headaches and coughing spasms since November 2015 and that the smell has worsened since January this year.

The stench has been reported as far away as Gillitts, Botha's Hill and Waterfall, and residents in Shongweni and Shongweni Dam say they too experience the “chemical stink”.

D'sa, of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, and Euripidou, of environmental justice action group groundWork, openly challenged EnviroServ and their consultants, GeoZone Environmental (GeoZone), on the results of the first findings, which absolved EnviroServ of any wrongdoing.

GeoZone is set to do more tests over the next six weeks.

EnviroServ's group technical director, Esme Gombault, said it had received 114 complaints about the stench, which had prompted it to take action.

She said the first phase of sampling was initiated on 11 April and terminated on 26 April 2016. “The results have been compared with the records of air sampling stations at numerous other locations in the area which have been collected over the last 12 years.”

Gombault said that the report showed “[the] ambient air quality on the boundaries of the Shongweni landfill site and at the Plantations Estate posed a low general health or cancer risk to exposed individuals during the survey period”.

She said the analysed data “suggested a contribution by a more local source of these [volatile organic compounds] than the landfill site (located 3 350m from Plantations Estate which has been vocal in its complaints)”.

Box ticking

But D'sa said the meeting could be described as a “box ticking exercise” for EnviroServ.

“They first state that as a company they have been monitoring the site for years and then they only show two weeks worth of data, which cannot give you a real picture of how the residents have been affected.”

Community members told Gombault that the stench at the landfill was the same smell that permeated their homes and was not present at other industries in the area. The smells came at short, intense peaks and then dissipated, they said.

D'sa said that EnviroServ was “green washing”, which was intended to “get the company off the hook”. He said the data being presented would only offer an indication and that more comprehensive monitoring and capturing of air pollution is required over a longer period “to really understand the impact of the toxins in the air that the residents are breathing”.

Euripidou called GeoZone's results “junk science”. “To collect and compare two weeks worth of data is fruitless, stupid and a total waste of money. GeoZone did this because it was cheap and easy,” he said.

Responding to Euripidou's comments via e-mail, Gombault said that EnviroServ placed an additional monitoring station in Plantations soon after learning of the complaints.

“The first two-week period was the initial step in the monitoring, which is continuing and will continue to be reported back on to the community. The methodology used is an acceptable international method and as such is used by our regulating authorities,” she said.

According to Euripidou and D'sa, to meaningfully understand the level of chemicals in the affected areas, an incident response team must investigate and map the complaints and all peaks and troughs, including meteorological data, which would have to be captured over time. Levels would have to be measured according to specific parameters.

Gombault told the crowd the company had not had any similar complaints of noxious air or illnesses from community members living near to their landfill sites around the country.

But in June last year, the South African Human Rights Commission found against EnviroServ over a complaint laid in 2013 “for operating a regional medical waste incineration facility affecting the health of community members residing around Ferreira Avenue in Bloemfontein, thus violating their right to a clean environment”.

Responding via email on Thursday as to why she had not acknowledged this at the meeting, Gombault said: “The company had not received complaints to the same extent (i.e. the number of complaints) elsewhere. The circumstances differ from site to site.

“Regarding the Bloemfontein health care risk waste treatment facility, which suspended operations in 2013, EnviroServ appealed the finding of the SAHRC on the basis that there is absolutely no evidence of a link between the company's operations and the health conditions reported by the complainant. The SAHRC has since upheld our appeal against the finding.”

AFRICAN NEWS AGENCY