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Environmental group, steel giant at war

Arcelor Mittal steel foundry. Photo: Arcelor.

Arcelor Mittal steel foundry. Photo: Arcelor.

Published Jun 4, 2013

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In December, a Vaal community organisation filled out a request for access to the environmental records of steel company ArcelorMittal South Africa (Amsa).

The company refused.

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Eighteen months later, the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (Veja) is still waiting.

Now it has taken its fight to the courts to force the company’s hand, saying these records are vital to ensuring that Amsa – a company with a dirty environmental history – complies with the country’s green laws and its own commitments to come clean.

But Amsa is asking what right an NGO has to demand such information, calling the request a “fishing expedition”.

The records in question are:

lArcelorMittal’s environmental master plan – a strategy document developed a decade ago, laying out the company’s plans for undoing past environmental damage caused at its Vanderbijlpark site. Veja says this document contains the results of scientific tests measuring the pollution levels at various Amsa sites.

lDetails about the Vaal disposal site in Vereeniging – a site where Amsa illegally dumped hazardous waste in 2007. It was slammed by the Department of Environmental Affairs for the “serious and significant” water and air pollution this caused. The site has since been closed and a rehabilitation plan developed.

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Yesterday, the NGO’s advocate, Steve Budlender, told the Johannesburg High Court that the matter was more than just about the right to access of information, and cited passage after passage from the National Environmental Management Act describing a private citizen’s part in pursuing environmental rights.

Budlender added that the contested master plan had informed Amsa’s activities and was used to obtain a water licence.

Granting Veja access to the master plan would in the very least show what Amsa had promised to do, while also giving Veja the baseline results of the pollution tests conducted at the time, he said.

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But Amsa said the plan was irrelevant, outdated and scientifically unfounded, and insisted that it wasn’t used to obtain any current operating licences.

“The plan was never adopted, never updated and never amended,” said advocate Chris Loxton SC.

“It is a wholly outdated document that has been entirely replaced.

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“Its scientifically unjustified conclusions can never be relied upon as a source of information for Veja,” Loxton said.

He said the NGO had failed to fully explain why it wanted the documents as, despite its sloppy track record, there was no evidence that Amsa was currently flouting environmental standards.

Loxton said the group seemed to think it had a right to inspect and monitor, and was setting itself up as a “parallel enforcement agency” alongside the state.

“They want the documents in order to see whether there may have been a breach. This is a classic fishing expedition,” he said.

Judgment was reserved. - The Star

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