By Paul Edmunds
As a student in KwaZulu-Natal in the early to mid-90s, it was hard to miss the exposé by Earthlife Africa and others of mercury contamination and poisoning that erupted around Thor Chemical Holdings, a British-owned company based in nearby Cato Ridge. It came to light recently that despite that publicity, several civil and one criminal lawsuit in British courts, and several undertakings to address the unsafe handling and storage of mercury-containing waste, the issue is still not resolved.
I decided to re-visit this because it seemed to embody so many issues coming to the fore as we head dangerously towards climate collapse: the pollution of our environment, the unfair environmental burden placed on developing economies by wealthier countries, and the concordance between human- and environmental rights. Mostly though, it demonstrates a government’s failure to protect its citizens, its animal life and its environment. It also shows corporate malfeasance of the worst kind.
What appears below is assembled from existing reporting, a university study and some personal knowledge of the issue and the parties involved.
In 1987, under pressure from UK Health and Safety Executive, Thor Chemicals, Inc was forced to shut down its mercury production operations in Margate, England, after excessive levels of mercury were found both in the air and in workers’ urine.
The following year the company, now known as Thor Chemicals Holdings Inc. established a mercury-reclamation plant in Cato Ridge, KwaZulu-Natal, for processing mercury-containing waste, bringing with them some waste from the UK operation. Such plants were rare anywhere, and as such, Thor became the go-to for many local and international companies faced with the problem of mercury disposal.
The Cato Ridge plant incinerated the waste, an unacceptable practice in most parts of the world, and permissible here largely because of lax environmental laws then in place. Also, because Thor was re-processing some of the mercuric waste and exporting it for a use in catalysing plastics, the SA government accepted that the imports were raw material rather than waste.
At the time, no such operation in the US, for example, would accept mercuric waste with organic compound levels higher than 3%, while Thor was accepting waste with 30 – 40% organic compound levels. Much of the imported waste came from US-based companies Borden Chemicals and Plastics, and American Cyanamid, who collectively produced around 190 tons of mercuric waste annually.
Thor employed unskilled workers from the surrounding areas who were initially paid R800 a month, and were apparently not well informed or equipped to deal with the danger inherent to their work. Workers’ urine was regularly tested for mercury levels. If these were found to be high they were sent away and told to drink orange juice and perhaps employed then in a different part of the operation.
The first signs of trouble emerged in 1988 when a Natal Parks Board scientist found several grossly deformed tadpoles and frogs in the streams surrounding the Thor plant. The tadpoles had extremely high levels of mercury. Earthlife Africa visited the site perimeter in March of that year, taking photos and sharing them with Jim Valette of Greenpeace International who had alerted them to information they had uncovered which suggested that Thor was importing toxic waste. They began campaigning then and incontrovertible evidence of the importing emerged in 89/90.
In 1989, an investigation by journalist Bill Lambrecht from the US-based St Louis Post-Depatch revealed mercury levels in the adjacent Mngeweni river to be 1500 times the permissible limit in the US. The river is a tributary of the Umgeni, which flows into the Inanda Dam, Durban’s major drinking water source, used by thousands of rural people for fishing, irrigation and washing. Mercury levels were still elevated close to 65km downstream from Cato Ridge!
In 1992 three workers from the plant were taken to hospital and were found to have mercury poisoning. Two of them later died and a further 27 were found to be suffering from various degrees of poisoning. SA officials ordered Thor to clean up, all while downplaying the nature of the threat.
Earthlife Africa, led then by Chris Albertyn, working in tandem with Greenpeace International, began compiling information on the activities and transgressions of Thor starting with reconnaissance photography. They began building a case against Thor Chemicals and, later, the SA government itself. The Chemical Workers’ Industrial Union got involved too, although Thor’s labour force was not unionised. Students, activists, farmers and local villagers all got involved in the campaign, as did a local chief.
Protest spread to the US where clients American Cyanamid and Borden Chemicals were pressured by the public and investigated by the federal government. South African union leaders travelled there to protest alongside their US counterparts. Back in Cato Ridge, protestors held vigils and met a shipment bound for the Thor plant at Durban, forcing it to turn away.
Thor had announced the closing of the plant in 1992, effective at the end of 1996. But in 1994, a site inspection by the Department of Environmental Affairs found around 10 000 barrels of mercuric waste there, leading to the charge that Thor was stockpiling rather than intending to process the waste.
Following a four-week closure by the Department of Water Affairs in that year, Thor was re-issued with a licence. A secret memo from the Department of Environmental Affairs to the cabinet emerged, stating that Thor’s ‘sensible operations in Natal demonstrated their sound work.’
In 1994, after being criminally charged with culpable homicide and violations of the Machinery and Occupational Safety Act in a UK court, three executives from Thor pleaded guilty to lesser charges of negligence and were fined R14 500. To date, this remains the only penalty imposed by any government on the company.
Zoologist and friend David Gaynor undertook a study of mercury levels in the local rodent population, clandestinely trapping them in and around the premises at night. He established unequivocally that those downstream from the facility had elevated mercury levels, which they could only have acquired by contact with polluted water and soil or by ingesting polluted foods. My own involvement, during a brief activist stint, consisted of painting a banner and taking part in a few public actions protesting the import of toxic waste. On the left is Chris Albertyn with an early mobile phone. He was interviewed on radio while protestors held up the traffic. Seems pretty humdrum now, but it may have actually been the first time I saw a mobile phone! Pic taken from the Natal Witness, 1995
At the same time, a civil case was filed by the SA Chemical Workers’ Industrial Union in London on behalf of the first three victims, alleging Thor was negligent in allowing the transfer of a defective mercury production plant from England to South Africa, and that they had failed to protect the workers from the potentially deadly effects. Thor fought this, even appealing to the House of Lords for the case not to be heard in the UK. Three years later in an out-of-court settlement, R14.3m was awarded in damages to the three.
An additional claim on behalf of 20 workers was filed against Thor in 1998, for unspecified damages and in response to continued poor safety practices at the company. Soon after this Thor transferred most of its assets to a newly formed company called Tato Holdings, reducing their assets from around $28m to $3.6m, a move widely held to be a means of reducing their liability to claims, a view upheld by the British Appeal Court. The workers were awarded R2.7m in an out-of-court settlement with no admission of guilt. (The amounts and dates of the court cases are differently stated in different sources, but the gist of the story remains consistent)
By the turn of the millenium, Thor had changed its name to Guernica and the US had sent the EPA to advise on treatment of the waste and spillage. They found sludge ponds, poorly-labelled, leaky drums and a warehouse filled with toxic fumes. Mercury waste was still leaching into the water table, and a local spring was found to be highly polluted. And that should have been that.
Guernica agreed to pay R24m towards cleaning up the mercury waste at its factory outside Durban, according to deputy environment minister Rejoice Mabudafhasi in 2003. This was for an intial phase of a clean-up she had intitally said would cost R60m.
In 2008, the SA Medical Research Council collected hair samples from 86 people in the vicinity of Inanda Dam, 40km from Cato Ridge. Nearly 20% had mercury levels exceeding the World Health Organisation’s guidelines. In addition, 50% percent of the fish had excessive levels, as did 22% of the soil samples.
Fast forward to 2012 when it was revealed that 3000 tons of mercuric waste was still stored at the facility. Clean-up was to start before September 2013, said government, at an estimated cost of R100m, but they were unable to say how this cost would be shared between Guernica and themselves.
Curiously, in September 2013, a fire at A-Thermal, a toxic waste incineration site in Olifantsfontein, Gauteng, brought to light a dirty secret. More than 40 tons of mercury-laden waste had been incinerated and released into the environment when the plant burned to the ground. The waste, it turns out, had been shipped there by Guernica.
In 2019, just two weeks after a visit from current Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy, a fire at the original Cato Ridge plant incinerated approximately 30 tons of the mercuric waste. In addition, reports surfaced that barrels of waste had been stolen, allegedly by informal miners who were after the chemicals to assist in the extraction of precious metals.
It was later reported that Guernica had agreed to clean up the site at a cost which had now risen to R300m, and that the remaining waste would be shipped to Switzerland where it could be most safely handled, all by the end of 2020. It remains to be seen whether this has happened.