ArcelorMittal SA's Vanderbijlpark plant. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
ArcelorMittal SA's Vanderbijlpark plant. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

Steelmaker ArcelorMittal has agreed to pay a R3.64m fine to settle a dispute with the department of environment, forestry and fisheries.

The settlement follows just a year after charges were brought against the company by the department for violations of its atmospheric emissions licence at its Vanderbijlpark operations

The loss-making operations, home to one of the world’s largest inland steel mills, has been a key source of concern for environmental justice groups that represent communities that have suffered ill-health due to the pollution in the Vaal triangle.

The fine is the latest in enforcement action from the department against emissions violations. Last month, after years of stop-start enforcement efforts, the department ordered Eskom to shut down and repair two of its non-compliant units at the Kendal power station.

ArcelorMittal SA said the matter was concluded on Wednesday, when a plea agreement between the prosecution and the company was accepted by the court. The agreement related to a charge of exceeding hydrogen sulphide (H2S) minimum emissions standards at its coke-making plant from January 1 2016 to December 31 2016.

The company was accordingly sentenced to a fine and ordered to pay R3.64m to the department.

“We have fully co-operated with the investigation and are pleased that the matter has been finalised, avoiding a lengthy and expensive trial, which would not be in anyone’s interests,” CEO of ArcelorMittal SA Kobus Verster said.

“While we acknowledge that emissions at our Vanderbijlpark plant exceeded permissible H2S levels for a period of time in the past, steps were taken to address the problem, but unfortunately the initiatives implemented did not adequately resolve the problem. Significant investment in a sustainable solution has subsequently been made, which was also acknowledged by the authorities.”

ArcelorMittal said it is committed to focusing on, and continually improving, its social, economic, financial and environmental performance.

Michelle Koyama, an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), which has previously represented communities in a case against ArcelorMittal SA, said the company has had an ongoing pollution problem dating back more than a decade. 

“The CER is pleased that the criminal prosecution against [ArcelorMittal SA] in relation to some of its air quality violations proceeded and that a fine was issued,” she said.

“For too long, there has been serious non-compliance with the minimum emission standards by several polluters, despite long lead times to come into compliance and postponements from compliance having been granted by the government. This prosecution of [ArcelorMittal SA], as well as the department’s recent enforcement action against Eskom’s Kendal power station, send a message to industrial facilities that business as usual cannot continue.”

Update: June 10 2020
This article has been updated with new comment and information throughout.

steynl@businesslive.co.za