Durban - Waste disposal giant EnviroServ, currently under criminal investigation by the Green Scorpions at its Shongweni landfill site, has threatened an award-winning environmental activist and a mother-of-two with legal action for allegedly being part of an “orchestrated public campaign” to discredit the company.
At a meeting in Merebank, south of Durban on Thursday night, community members, officials from eThekwini Municipality and environmental affairs representatives heard that EnviroServ sent letters to Desmond D’Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) and Lauren Johnson, a Hillcrest resident who sits on the monitoring committee overseeing the Shongweni landfill.
D’Sa and Johnson have been collecting affidavits and statements from community members detailing their experiences with the alleged “toxic fumes” emanating from the landfill, which residents believe are making them sick.
The DEA had previously said that in one week in August, over 300 complaints were received from residents of Hillcrest and surrounds, which led to the current investigations. Residents have complained of asthma, bronchitis, nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds and other health issues.
D’Sa and Johnson said they agreed to facilitate the process for the DEA in order to speed-up the investigation.
EnviroServ has admitted that “gaseous emissions” from the leachate have been “contributing to the malodours” in the area, but has denied any liability for health issues. Leachate is a by-product of the waste disposal process.
Hillcrest is almost 30 kilometres inland of Merebank, but the communities and their surrounds have “pledged solidarity” with one another because the leachate and contaminated storm water stored at the Shongweni landfill, amounting to 24 million litres, is now being disposed of through the southern waste water treatment plant in Merebank and then pumped four kilometres out to sea at Cuttings Beach.
The DEA’s director of enforcement for environmental impact and pollution, Grant Walters, told the audience of about 100 that he knew of the letters EnviroServ had sent to D’Sa and Johnson. “Those letters need to be sent to us as a matter of urgency,” he said.
Walters said that the statements and affidavits being collected by D’Sa and Johnson “would help to expedite the investigation” and called on community members to submit any evidence of wrongdoing.
In the letter sent to D’Sa EnviroServ CEO, Dean Thompson said the company had proposed an 11-point action plan to the DEA, which was agreed to and was being implemented within the agreed time frames.
“You will understand our surprise, therefore, when we became aware of your quotes and comments,” said Thompson.
Thompson listed the statements attributed to D’Sa, in which D’Sa said that the “toxic waste” was responsible for the recent deaths of “turtles and dolphins being washed up on shore”, that “the EnviroServ board, senior and local management were serial non-compliance offenders who had repeatedly broken the law” and that Enviroserv’s failure to comply “with the material conditions of their licence are sufficient grounds for termination of their contract”.
EnviroServ has been fined five times; three times in 2013 and twice in 2016 for transgressing eThekwini by-laws regarding effluent disposal. Before each fine, three warnings are issued, according to eThekwini Municipality.
Thompson said D’Sa’s statements were “sensational and factually incorrect” and that the incorrect facts had been disseminated publicly.
In the letters to D’Sa and Johnson, Thompson said: “This would tend to confirm that there is indeed what appears to be an orchestrated public campaign directed at coercing the DEA and other authorities into precipitous action without all the necessary and relevant information having been gathered.”
He said the campaign could result in “public embarrassment and financial harm” to the company.
“Your comments appear to be one of many like it, although it appears to us that you are one of the individuals involved in co-ordinating the campaign.”
Thompson sad there were “literally hundreds” of industries using the southern waste water treatment works and EnviroServ’s waste “is just a small fraction of this”.
He said that before effluent was accepted for disposal, it had to meet “meticulous standards which are governed by the eThekwini municipality”.
Both letters further stated: “Your campaign and those waged by others have indeed had the intended result as far as the DEA’s and other authorities’ recent actions are concerned. However, as a result of the numerous unsubstantiated allegations, we would like to point out that the company is now also suffering reputational damage, and this may, in turn, result in market share - and financial loss.
“We respectfully draw your attention to these consequences, so that there can be no misunderstanding at any future point regarding liability for any losses EnviroServ might suffer.”
“We really are left with little choice but to reserve our rights against you. We would urge you to carefully monitor what you say and ensure that public disseminations you make regarding our company are both accurate and fair.”
Responding to the letters at Thursday night’s meeting, D’Sa said he would not allow himself or the SDCEA to be “threatened” by EnviroServ. “Who do they think they are? EnviroServ knows where they can put these letters,” he said.