By Norm Dixon
JOHANNESBURG — Thor Chemicals is again at the centre of a major controversy, this time involving the import into South Africa of toxic wastes. Thor Chemicals is a British-owned company notorious for its callous treatment of black workers employed at its Cato Ridge plant near Pietermaritzburg in Natal. Three senior executives are facing charges of murder after the death of a worker from mercury poisoning in July.
The latest controversy erupted when Greenpeace New York and South Africa's Earthlife Africa, together with the Environmental Justice Forum, revealed that a US company, Borden Chemicals and Plastics, had dispatched a shipment of 160 barrels of toxic mercury waste from its Louisiana plant to South Africa.
The consignment of "spent mercuric fluoride catalyst", expected to arrive in Durban in mid-February, was to be "recycled" at Thor's Cato Ridge plant. The waste is banned from US land fills. In 1991, authorities in Louisiana said Borden's used catalyst was a hazardous waste and could not be exported, but Borden won an appeal on the grounds that the waste was being "recycled". At least 147 tonnes of mercury waste was exported to South Africa by Borden Chemicals during 1993.
Demonstrators from Earthlife Africa and the Environmental Justice Forum picketed the Cato Ridge plant on February 21 in protest at the shipment. Similar protests were held at the Borden plant in Louisiana on the same day.
Thor claimed the waste would be burned in its high-temperature incinerator to recover mercury. However, spokesperson for the Earthlife Africa Chris Albertyn said that Thor had yet to receive a permit from the Department of National Health to operate the incinerator: "Thor is sitting with 2 million kilograms of toxic waste on its premises that is not being recycled".
Albertyn accuses Thor of stepping up its importation of toxic wastes despite continuing investigations which could yet decide that the Cato Ridge plant is unfit to deal with them.
Earthlife Africa has also revealed that the Department of National Health seems to be acting irregularly by allowing Thor to burn and dump wastes despite its inability to meet the minimum safety standards to qualify for an operating permit.
The Department of National Health's chief air pollution control officer told Earthlife that Thor has been unable to meet the required standards despite being allowed to incinerate mercury waste throughout 1993 as a "trial run". Despite this, Thor has been granted "verbal permission" to conduct further "trial runs".
Recent evidence gathered by zoologist David Gaynor has shown that mercury is entering the local environment surrounding the Cato Ridge plant. Gaynor found that rats in the vicinity have seven times more mercury in their bodies than a control group away from the plant. The rats studied eat only seeds and fruit, suggesting mercury contamination of water, the surrounding soil and vegetation. "These rats were not poisoned by eating other animals, but from eating fruit, drinking water and possibly through the skin touching contaminated soil", Gaynor warned.
The Department of Water Affairs has also given Thor permission to dump toxic mercury wastes on its premises rather than at a regulated toxic waste dump. The site is not registered, as is required by law, nor have any written guidelines been provided for its management.
South Africa's environmental organisations are demanding that the government ban all further imports of toxic wastes. They accuse Thor of importing as much toxic waste as possible as quickly as possible in order to pressure the authorities to grant it the permits to burn and dump the deadly waste.
The African National Congress has pledged to end all imports of toxic waste into South Africa after it wins the April elections.
Thor Chemicals has a massive stockpile of imported toxic waste, believed to be in the vicinity of 4000 barrels. This includes toxic wastes from US companies American Cyanamid, Borden Chemicals and Plastics, and Calgon, as well as the remnants from Thor's British mercuric chloride plant, which was moved to South Africa after it was discovered that workers there were being poisoned.
Under pressure, Thor Chemicals on February 21 announced it would not accept the toxic cargo and that it would no longer accept waste from Borden Chemicals and Plastics. Protests by Greenpeace activists in the US also forced Borden Chemicals and Plastics to agree to take back the shipment. US and South African environmentalists are demanding that US companies back all their waste that is stockpiled in South Africa.
Meanwhile, Thor Chemicals' parent company in the UK is being sued by three South African workers for damage to their health suffered at the Cato Ridge plant. The test case has been instituted by the South African Chemical Workers' Industrial Union. The workers have applied for legal aid to bring their cases before the British courts.
[Special thanks to Chris Albertyn and Earthlife Pietermaritzburg for the information in this report.]