Arcelor Mittal SA: Undone and dusted
9 June 2011, Financial Mail
No-one who has driven between Bloemfontein and Johannesburg could fail to have noticed the haze, stench and massive steelworks near the motorway. But Amsa is not the only polluter in the area. Sasol, Eskom power stations and, in winter, household coal fires also contribute to the horrible air quality
ArcelorMittal SA (Amsa) has lifted the lid a little on what it is doing to address the costly environmental damage arising from decades of steelmaking around the Vereeniging and Vanderbijlpark area south of Johannesburg.
No-one who has driven between Bloemfontein and Johannesburg could fail to have noticed the haze, stench and massive steelworks near the motorway. But Amsa is not the only polluter in the area. Sasol, Eskom power stations and, in winter, household coal fires also contribute to the horrible air quality.
Amsa has come under fire from both government’s Green Scorpions and civil society groups, mainly GroundWork and the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, for its dust emissions and contamination of groundwater in this area.
The legacy of pollution is one that industrial companies all over the world have to live with, as governments are introducing legislation, and civil society is driving campaigns, to ensure that companies address their environmental responsibilities.
Amsa has a 100-year-old scrap recycling works in Vereeniging and a 70000ha site in Vanderbijlpark housing its main operation, which is almost 70 years old. The two sites were part of the former state-owned Iscor assets bought by international steelmakers Mittal Group in 2001. In Amsa’s case some of the pollution did not happen under its watch, but improving the steelworks’ environmental record was not top of the group’s agenda at first.
In 2007 Amsa was ordered to cease dumping at its Vaal waste disposal site in Vereeniging because of various transgressions. The site has been closed for the past three years, since Amsa submitted a remediation proposal to the authorities. The money has been set aside to fix it, says Amsa, but the authorities have never made a decision on the proposal.
Hosting its first media visit last week to the two sites in over a decade, Amsa demonstrated its R220m dust extraction system in Vereeniging and the R250m sinter plant bag house at Vanderbijlpark, which reduces both dust and sulphur emissions. It also took the media to see the R40m sealing and seeding of Dam10, a 75ha, unlined waste facility built in 1960. Today all tailings dams are lined to prevent contamination of groundwater.
Amsa has spent almost R800m on air- cleaning projects in the past two years and has budgeted another R2,5bn for other “big ticket” items to address effluents between now and 2015. This spending will bring the company in line with the requirements of the Air Quality Act and the Waste Management Act, says Amsa group manager: environment Siegfried Spänig.
But there are still outstanding issues. Bobby Peek of the nongovernmental organisation GroundWork says action groups have been asking Amsa for several years to release the 8000-page master plan that the group compiled in the early 2000s. It is a comprehensive report on the environmental damage at the group’s sites.
Amsa says in its latest annual report that the master plan was written for internal purposes only and it is outdated now because environmental legislation has changed. Peek insists civil society cannot assess whether what Amsa is doing is benefiting society because, without sight of the master plan, there is no baseline measure.
Another issue raised both by GroundWork and an international NGO, Bankwatch, in a report called “ArcelorMittal in the Wake”, is that Amsa paid insufficient compensation to people who had to move out of contaminated properties around the Vanderbijlpark site.
Spänig says no-one was moved off the land forcibly. Properties were bought on a “willing buyer, willing seller” basis and some property owners refused to sell. In fact, Amsa says, most of the property has been found to be safe. Groundwater was contaminated on a few sites and these are properties that Amsa now owns.