Experts sound alarm over emissions in Pietermaritzburg as residents struggle to breathe
By Kailene Pillay and Thami Magubane
Durban - Environmentalists have warned that the toxic, acrid smoke emissions over Pietermaritzburg may carry cancer-causing chemicals, and that over-exposure during the Covid-19 pandemic could lead to severe health issues or death.
GroundWork’s Musa Chamane said the smoke was choking people.
“Those with asthma and respiratory issues are suffering the most. However, even those without any previous history of respiratory problems are now struggling to breathe,” said Chamane.
He said they had previously raised the alarm that any fire at the Msunduzi Landfill Site was toxic due to the dioxins and furans emanating from the dump.
However, the situation was even worse now because of Covid-19, he added.
The landfill has been burning for a week, after a fire started at midnight last Monday.
The toxic smoke that has blanketed the city forced the closure of schools, and saw many residents flee their homes because of health warnings issued by the Msunduzi Municipality.
Yesterday, teams were still trying to put out the flames.
Chamane said residents, especially those living in Sobantu, a small township next to the dump, had complained they had no escape from the acrid smoke.
Pietermaritzburg environmental lawyer Jeremy Ridl said he would be surprised if the municipality did not face legal action over the fire.
Ridl, who previously represented a civic organisation in a legal battle with the city over the dump, said that if the municipality did not provide a plan on moving the dump, he would approach the court to compel it to do so.
“We want a complete plan with budgets and time frames. A fully represented monitoring committee also needs to be established.
“This committee needs to keep the public aware of what is going on, and also find funds to move the dump to a new site,” Ridl said.
He added that apart from the Msunduzi Municipality, the district municipality and the provincial government should also be held accountable for mismanaging the dump.
The local municipality should not be managing such a landfill site, the responsibility rested with the district, said Ridl.
“The provincial leadership has failed the city by leaving the dump to be managed by the municipality. This site should have been closed years ago and this latest fire opens the city up to myriad legal actions,” Ridl said.
At the weekend, members of the Environmental Affairs Portfolio Committee visited Sobantu, the area that has been the worst affected by the fire.
The committee said their hope was for the landfill site to be moved within the next 30 months to a less populated area.
A task team led by the committee members has been set up to investigate the problems and review plans by the municipality to relocate the landfill.
Their planned inspection of the site was halted after they were cornered by irate Sobantu residents who accused them of dragging their feet in attending to the matter.
“We went there on Friday, and the community expressed their dissatisfaction that we had pitched five days after the fire started. They demanded a community meeting with the committee. However, the task team met the community on Saturday,” said committee chairperson Sthembiso Mshengu.
He said they were concerned about the location of the landfill, the fires and the health problems it posed.
“This is not the first fire and it will not be the last. It has been burning for a week now. It is also a worry what material is being dumped there.
“We understand that it is an old site which services a lot of municipalities. But the community wants a real plan about the relocation of the site,” he said.
Mshengu said they were engaging with the municipality to find out what the plans were to move the dump.
“The community is complaining that the dump is affecting their health and their livelihoods,” he said. “We also want an investigation by the Green Scorpions to find out what exactly is at that landfill site. It is possible that some people are dumping chemicals there that could be triggering the fire or fuelling the flames. We want a full investigation as to who or what or how the fire started,” he added.
Mshengu said the municipality also needed to be investigated to see if it was complying with the conditions of the licence to operate the landfill site.
KwaZulu-Natal manager for the Human Rights Commission, Lloyd Lotz, said they had launched an investigation into the landfill site and it was at an advanced stage. He said they were engaging the affected parties, including the Sobantu community and schools.
He said they were also concerned about the dilapidated state of the landfill and the management problems.
“We are monitoring the current situation very closely,” said Lotz.
Municipal spokesperson Thobeka Mafumbatha said the situation at the landfill was now under control.
“All teams are on site and they are containing the fire. The smoke has also been contained. We will give further updates.”