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Joint Media Release: Victory for Vaal community: Court orders ArcelorMittal SA to hand over documents

September 10, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Members if VEJA celebrate the long-awaited hearing of their case against ArcelorMittal SA outside the Johannesburg High Court on 3 June 2013

Members of VEJA celebrate the long-awaited hearing of their case against ArcelorMittal SA outside the Johannesburg High Court on 3 June 2013

Vanderbijlpark, Gauteng, 10 September 2013 – After being at loggerheads for many years with Africa’s largest steel producer, ArcelorMittal South Africa (Amsa), the Vaal community is one step closer to realising their right to a cleaner environment. Today, judgement was handed down by the South Gauteng High Court mandating records of Amsa’s Environmental Master Plan and Vaal Disposal Site to be handed over to the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) [1].

VEJA’s first request, made in 2011, was for a copy of Amsa’s Environmental Master Plan (‘the Master Plan’), compiled by the company in 2002 for rehabilitation of its Vanderbijlpark site. Last year, VEJA also requested records relating to the closure and rehabilitation of the company’s Vaal Disposal Site, situated in Vereeniging, after the company had illegally dumped hazardous waste here [2].

The organisation made these requests with legal representation from the Centre for Environmental Rights on the premise that it is in the public interest, and more specifically, the interest of the Vaal community, to know what impact Amsa is causing to the environment and people’s health.

In his judgement handed down this morning, Acting Judge Carstensen stated:

The participation in environmental governance, the assessment of compliance, the motivation of the public, the mobilisation of public, the dissemination of information does not usurp the role of the State but constitutes a vital collaboration between the State and private entities in order to ensure achievement of constitutional objectives [3].

With these documents, VEJA and the communities it represents can now better ensure that Amsa carries out its obligations under the relevant legislation, including the National Management Act 107 of 1998 (NEMA), the National Environmental Management: Waste Act 59 of 2008, and the National Water Act 36 of 1998 [4].

Caroline Ntaopane, Project Coordinator of the VEJA, explains the importance of this judgement: “Now the communities that have been affected by Amsa and struggling with health issues can finally better understand the extent of the company’s impact and how they can begin to hold it more accountable.”

Given Amsa’s history of acting with impunity towards its environmental obligations, VEJA’s recent concerns are well-founded.  Not only have its operations in South Africa been less than exemplary, a report published in 2009 by a group of NGOs, including groundWork, Friends of the Earth Europe and CEE Bankwatch Network, highlights the multinational’s international status as a major polluter of people and their environment [5]:

During the last 15 years, ArcelorMittal’s predecessor companies, mainly Mittal Steel, have bought up several old and highly polluting steelmills and made them profitable, however environmental improvements other than those necessary to increase production efficiency have been painfully slow. As well as pollution, several groups have raised issues such as the repeated fatal mining accidents in Kazakhstan, which have been partly blamed on poor health and safety practices, and plans to build mega-steelmills in India, displacing tribal people from their land in a country where such processes have rarely if ever led to an improvement in the situation of those affected.

Today’s judgement is not only a win for the VEJA, but for environmental justice and governance in South Africa, as it confirms the right of fence-line communities to have access to environmental documents of corporate polluters, so that they can be in a stronger position to protect their constitutional rights to a safe and healthy environment.

Robyn Hugo, Attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) [6] comments:

NEMA, other environmental legislation and international law provide that civil society has a critical role to play in environmental governance, including by monitoring pollution and compliance with environmental laws. With this judgement, the court has confirmed that organisations like VEJA are entitled to protect and exercise the right to a healthy environment by seeking information to enable them to assess environmental impacts, and to exercise a watchdog role.

Issued by:

  • Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (contact Caroline Ntaopane, Project Coordinator at the VEJA: +27 (0) 16 933 9079 / +27 (0) 73 246 0081/ caroline@bench-marks.org.za)
  • groundWork (contact Bobby Peek, Director at groundWork: +27 (0) 82 464 1383 / bobby@groundwork.org.za)
  • Centre for Environmental Rights (Robyn Hugo, Attorney at CER: +27 (0) 28 312 2746 / +27 (0) 82 389 4357 / rhugo@cer.org.za)

FOOTNOTES

[1] The Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) is a voluntary association of non-governmental and community-based organisations that advocates for a healthy environment and sustainable development in “the Vaal Triangle”.  This is an area of heavy industry and mining in the south of Gauteng, in which two of ArcelorMittal’s major steel-plants are situated, namely its Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging sites.

[2] A full list of court papers related to this case is accessible here: http://cer.org.za/virtual-library/vaal-environmental-justice-alliance-v-company-secretary-arcelormittal-sa

[3] Paragraph 18 of the judgement.

[4] See press release “Vaal environmental organisation takes Amsa to court for withholding records” issued on 31 May 2013 http://cer.org.za/news/media-release-vaal-environmental-organisation-takes-arcelormittal-south-africa-to-court-for-withholding-records

[5] See report “ArcelorMittal: Going nowhere slowly. A review of the global steel giant’s environmental and social impacts in 2008-2009” published in May 2009 http://bankwatch.org/sites/default/files/ArcelorMittal_Going_Nowhere.pdf

[6] The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) is a non-profit company and law clinic based in Cape Town, South Africa. The Centre was established in October 2009 by eight civil society organisations (CSOs) in South Africa’s environmental and environmental justice sector to provide legal and related support to environmental CSOs and communities. Its mission is to advance the realisation of environmental rights as guaranteed in the South African Constitution by providing support and legal representation to civil society organisations and communities who wish to protect their environmental rights, and by engaging in legal research, advocacy and litigation to achieve strategic change www.cer.org.za

[7] groundWork is an environmental justice organisation working with community people from around South Africa, and increasingly Southern Africa, on environmental justice and human rights issues focusing on Air Quality, Climate and Energy Justice, Waste and Environmental Health. groundWork is the South African member of Friends of the Earth International www.groundwork.org.za

  • dman

    Today the terms sset by the court for ArcelorMittal expires. Are there any news regarding the disclosure of documents?

Section 24 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996

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