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Vaal communities demand accountability from polluter ArcelorMittal at its shareholder meeting

30 June 2020 at 10:38 am

Community activist Samson Mokoena of Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance holds up tar covered hands after touching contaminated groundwater in AMSA’s monitoring borehole. PHOTO: James Oatway 
Community activist Samson Mokoena of Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance holds up tar covered hands after touching contaminated groundwater in AMSA’s monitoring borehole. PHOTO: James Oatway 

Today, at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of steel producing giant and serial polluter ArcelorMittal South Africa (AMSA), environmental justice organisations Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) and groundWork, supported by attorneys from the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), are demanding accountability from AMSA for its environmental violations, and its lack of transparency and adequate community consultation.

AMSA will face pressure inside its virtual shareholder meeting with questions posed by representatives of VEJA as well as CER lawyers as registered shareholders of AMSA.

Outside of the AGM, community activists will voice their experiences of AMSA’s pollution and raise awareness of the immense impact which air, water and soil pollution has on their lives and the lives of their children.

Media observers have been refused admission to the AGM, despite the fact that AMSA is a publicly listed company facing issues of significant public interest.

AMSA recently indicated that large scale restructuring of the company is underway – likely to impact thousands of jobs. In the midst of operational restrictions due to COVID-19 and existing financial pressure due to a difficult domestic economic environment, the company faces pressure from communities and environmental activists to ensure that their health is protected from AMSA’s ongoing pollution.

This is not an easy situation. While surrounding communities are impacted by pollution on a daily basis, they now face the prospect of job losses. Due to their past exposure to air pollution, they are also more vulnerable and susceptible to COVID-19.

While its parent company in Europe is making progress towards reforming its operations, having recently obtained a EUR 75m EIB loan to scale up breakthrough technology to reduce carbon emissions, no such efforts are being made by AMSA here in South Africa. Here, AMSA has failed to implement adequate measures to reform its operations in way that ensures compliance with environmental laws, prevents harm to people’s health and well-being, and that is environmentally sustainable.

For an entire decade from 2009 to 2019, government’s annual National Environmental Compliance Reports have cited AMSA for a multitude of environmental transgressions in relation to water pollution, land contamination and air pollution at its Vanderbijlpark Works. A few weeks ago, AMSA received a criminal fine of R3.64 million on charges of exceeding hydrogen sulphide minimum emission standards at its steel plant in Vanderbijlpark.

Secrecy and non-disclosure

AMSA also has a history of refusing to disclose records of its pollution to affected fenceline communities. In 2014, VEJA, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, successfully challenged AMSA in the Supreme Court of Appeal for its refusal to disclose its environmental “Master Plan”. The Supreme Court of Appeal ordered ArcelorMittal to release the information to VEJA.

At the time, the Supreme Court of Appeal questioned the incongruency of AMSA’s public statements on transparency and environmental responsibility on one hand; while at the same time, assuming “an obstructive and contrived approach to a request for information”. Despite the court’s damning ruling against AMSA, confirming that “there is no room for secrecy” when it comes to matters of environmental harm, AMSA continues to withhold crucial environmental information from the public.

Despite being censured for their secrecy in 2014, AMSA has refused to allow the Department of Environmental Affairs, Forestry & Fisheries (DEFF) to provide civil society with full and complete information on their GHG emission data report and pollution prevention plan – the disclosure of which is clearly in the public interest.

In response to a 2019 PAIA request by CER to DEFF for access to key GHG emission information, after receiving representations from AMSA, DEFF released only redacted copies of AMSA’s GHG emission data report, pollution prevention plan and AMSA’s annual progress report. (Note: the only entities who refused to provide unredacted versions of their annual progress reports were Eskom, Sasol and AMSA – the top 3 GHG emitters in SA).

Air pollution and climate impacts

Communities living in the Vaal Triangle Airshed Priority Area have long suffered the deadly environmental effects of its air pollution, and remain vocal about the harmful impact of air and other pollution on their health, and the infringement of their Constitutional right to a healthy environment.

AMSA is also South Africa’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter, significantly contributing to climate change.  The CER’s Full Disclosure 5 Report places AMSA as the worst performer out of all the emitters assessed in the 2019 report and the company has no strategy to address those risks. AMSA’s GHG emissions compared to 2018 remain high (12Mt compared 14.48Mt the previous year), and any reduction was only due to less steel being produced.

Given the unfolding climate emergency and the imperative of the Paris Agreement, investors can no longer continue with business as usual, turning a blind eye to the way their investments fuel devastating climate change. Major AMSA shareholders such as AMSA’s Luxembourg based parent company, ArcelorMittal (67.8%), the Public Investment Corporation, the Industrial Development Corporation and Ninety One, with a combined shareholding of approximately 17% must use their power to ensure that AMSA takes immediate action to reduce its GHG emissions.

NOTES TO EDITOR

AMSA 2019 Factsheet

2014 Supreme Court Judgment

AMSA in CER’s Full Disclosure 5 Report on Climate Risk

CONTACT: Lerato Balendran, Head of Communications at CER, lbalendran@cer.org.za

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

Everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that prevent pollution and ecological degradation; promote conservation; and secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.

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