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South Africa: Resistance to Waste Incinerators Grows

by Danielle KnightInter Press Service
May 16th, 2001

JOHANNESBURG -- Environmentalists here are troubled by a rash of applications to build incinerators to dispose of medical and hazardous waste.

The only thing that worries them more than the applications they know about is the possibility that many more are being processed without their knowledge.

''Incinerators do not make waste disappear - they reduce it to ash and to atmospheric emissions, both of which are potentially dangerous,'' says Leila Mahomed, who coordinates the Anti- Incineration Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups in Western Cape province.

Many industrial nations are phasing out the use of waste incinerators. But environmentalists here have stumbled upon proposals to build new ones - a number of them in densely populated regions.

Nine medical waste incinerators are being proposed in Gauteng, South Africa's most thickly populated and heavily industrial province.

In the southwest, Denel Corporation, the country's largest private arms manufacturer, has asked to build a waste incinerator between two low-income communities: Mitchells Plein, a mixed race or so- called coloured community, and Khayelitsha, a black community that is home to about 600,000 people. The government of Western Cape province has not announced whether it will approve the permit.

''We have many cases of tuberculosis, HIV, cancer and asthma,'' says Khayelitsha community activist and 10-year resident Thabang Ngcozela. ''If you bring in the incinerator to this residential area you increase the attack on people's immune systems.''

Because the central, provincial and municipal government officials who receive the applications are not routinely required to make the documents public, however, environmentalists fear they've only seen the tip of the iceberg. For their part, officials declined repeated requests for comment.

Companies are required to disclose their incinerator proposals but community advocates say the public notices contain insufficient information and are not readily accessible.

''If the advertisement is in English that cuts out about 85 percent of the population,'' says Muna Lakhani of Earthlife Africa.

Lakhani and Mahomed are among a small but determined army striving to convince the public and government alike that the country should focus on reducing the amount of waste they generate in the first place, and to steer clear of incinerators because they emit chemicals hazardous to human health and the environment.

Nationwide, environmental groups including Earthlife Africa, the Environmental Justice Networking Forum, and Group for Environmental Monitoring are calling for a moratorium on the approval of any new incinerators.

Incinerator proposals are put through an environmental assessment process by provincial authorities and are further reviewed by the national government's department of environmental affairs and tourism. Critics charge, however, that the process fails to account for the release of dioxins, furans, lead, and other potentially harmful substances that are emitted into the air when waste is combusted.

These chemicals are known to disrupt the body's regulation of hormones. Exposure to dioxins also has been linked to cancer, sterility, birth defects, and weakened immune systems. Dioxins are considered global pollutants because they can travel long distances, remain in the environment for a long period of time, and build up in the food chain.

''In a country ravaged by AIDS, which weakens the immune system, one would think that authorities would be very concerned about incinerator issues,'' says Lakhani.

Low-income and black communities usually bear the brunt of the pollution, say activists, because incinerators are often built near these neighbourhoods.

''The people who really suffer from incinerators are black communities,'' Lakhani says. ''We are still carrying the legacy of apartheid.''

Ellen Nicol, a lawyer at the public interest law firm Legal Resources Centre, says that once granted, permits to operate incinerators often are renewed even when companies fail to comply with their contracts.

''But even if they were complied with, the requirements do not adequately protect health and the environment,'' Nicol asserts. Ash resulting from incineration, she adds by way of example, is not properly regulated.

Government regulations only require that "the ash is disposed of, but just in a regular municipal disposal site, not a hazardous waste site, even if the ash is hazardous,'' she says.

Incinerators also must comply with national air pollution laws but many environmental groups say the 1965 Air Pollution Prevention Act is outdated and merely recommends standards to be voluntarily observed. Parliament is drawing up a new law.

In the United States, more than 280 incinerator proposals have been defeated or abandoned since 1985 because of public opposition. In France, authorities have closed down three municipal waste incinerators in Lille because high concentrations of dioxins were found in locally produced cow's milk. Turkey's environment minister decreed in 1999 that all waste incinerators would be phased out.

Citing the examples of waste management programmes in other countries, Mahomed of the Anti-Incineration Alliance says the best possible alternatives to incineration are waste reduction and separation.

''Manufacturers need to be encouraged to stop producing substances which cannot be recycled, reused or composted,'' she says, adding that these methods can recover between 45 per cent and 75 per cent of the original volume of waste.

Other alternatives include using ultra-violet light and chemical and mechanical disinfection to sanitize waste before it is recycled or put into landfills.

In Western Cape province, the Alliance has proposed setting up a waste management system in hospitals that separates rubbish from recyclable products such as cans and bottles.

Since the new government took power in 1994 and environmental protection was written into the constitution, many laws including the National Environmental Management Act have helped environmentalists make a strong case against incineration, adds Mahomed.

''But,'' she says,'' it is going to be a while before actual change in environmental management happens on the ground,'' she says.





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