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Toxic fumes blow from Sasolburg

Published Jun 2, 2003

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Johannesburg - Sasol, the petrochemicals and explosives manufacturer, has come under fire in a corporate social responsibility report for emitting poisonous chemicals into the northern Free State area, where its coal-burning plant Sasolburg is based.

These chemicals include toluene, which can cause brain damage and death; benzene, a carcinogen that can result in excessive bleeding and which affects the immune system; carbon tetrachloride, which is harmful to the liver and kidneys; and carbon disulphide, which can cause excessive vomiting, delirium and convulsions.

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The report was conducted by a unit of the University of Witwatersrand's sociology department for the UN Research Institute for Social Development.

It found that Sasol's oil-from-coal manufacturing process and coal-fired power stations were responsible for 57 percent of South Africa's greenhouse gas emissions.

Sasol spokesperson Johanne van Rheede said while the level of emissions cited was true, Sasol only burnt a third of the amount of coal that was burnt by other coal users.

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"Sasol only burns 50 million tons of coal a year whereas Eskom power stations burn 150 million tons of coal a year, so it will be wrong to give the impression that Sasol is responsible for the bulk of the emissions," he said.

The Wits unit said independent testing conducted by US experts found that there were 16 highly dangerous chemicals emitted continuously over the township. The experts were invited to Zamdela, a township next to Sasolburg, by groundWork, a non-governmental environmental pressure group.

They said seven of the chemicals were carcinogenic, or cancer causing, and the levels of benzine emissions were eight times higher than US limits.

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"The area is laced with a cocktail of chemicals and fumes that attack the brain, central nervous system, liver, kidneys and lungs," said Bobby Peek, a groundWork spokesperson.

He said the Sasolburg plant emitted 42 000 tons of volatile organic compounds (benzene and toulene) a year and 26 000 tons of sulphur dioxide.

But Van Rheede said these emission levels were only "eight times the detection level of the equipment used by the US experts".

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The Wits unit said: "While the company rejected the results of other tests and their methodologies, it had to admit the US experts had proven the existence of excessively high benzine levels and felt obliged to take action to reduce these. The whistle-blowing had therefore helped to some extent."

However, Van Rheede denied the company had admitted this.

This was disputed by Peek: "Sasol roped in Leeds and Potchefstroom universities and found exactly the same chemicals as the US experts. We then did tests together with Sasol and confirmed the results. The reality is still the same even today."

However, the Wits unit said Sasol embarked on improvements to its environmental management systems following its global repositioning. This, more than the government's regulation - with which Sasol was irritated, especially the state's inability to process and approve the 70 environmental impact assessments covering future developments in which the company was involved - had been the main driver of the improvement.

"The corporation was steadily entering other markets and jurisdictions ... It had become more susceptible to meeting international environmental standards and more responsive to customer insistence on cleaner air," the university unit said.

While it was making some serious attempts at better environmental management, it was far from the goals it set itself. By 2004 there should be positive changes in the shift from using coal to natural gas as its primary petrochemical feedstock, it said.

Van Rheede said the change to natural gas would bring down the levels of emissions dramatically. "The only coal that will be used will be in limited quantities for power generation."

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