Thor talks: Environmental affairs, forestry and fisheries minister Barbara Creecy is driving the action. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Thor talks: Environmental affairs, forestry and fisheries minister Barbara Creecy is driving the action. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

The department of environmental affairs says it wants more than 3,000 tons of mercury waste stockpiles at the old Thor Chemicals factory in KwaZulu-Natal to be removed by the end of next year.

The department says Thor Chemicals — a British multinational that owned and ran the Cato Ridge plant where drums of toxic sludge are stored — has agreed in principle to pay more than R300m required to export the waste to Switzerland, where it will be disposed of.

Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin, which can lead to blurred vision, tremors, brain damage, coma and death. In the late 1980s and 1990s, scores of Thor Chemicals workers who were exposed to the hazardous chemical waste were diagnosed with mercury poisoning and died painful deaths. Others were partially poisoned and are still feeling the effect of this poisoning, decades later.

Thor Chemicals moved its mercury incinerator plant from Margate, Kent, in the UK in the mid-70s after an outcry about the hazardous nature of the operation. The company then began exporting these chemicals to its Cato Ridge facility. The plant was forced to shut its doors here in the early 1990s after news that workers poisoned by mercury were dying and others were comatose. The plant has been in a state of dilapidation since then.

Two incidents have shone the spotlight on the plant in recent months. Criminals stole some containers of the toxic substance in the hope of using it in zama-zama mining pursuits and other criminal activities. A few weeks ago, a fire broke out at the facility, and environmental organisations estimate that more than 30 tons of mercury waste was injected into the environment as a result of the fire.

In August, the minister of environmental affairs, forestry and fisheries, Barbara Creecy, promised to take immediate action to ensure that the chemicals were moved from the site and destroyed. Albi Modise, spokesperson for the department, said talks between government officials and Thor Chemicals are at an advanced stage.

“Our laws stipulate that the perpetrator must pay for the cleanup. Minister has made it clear that this mercury-containing waste must be disposed of appropriately and expeditiously. The option proposed by Thor Chemicals entails the removal of the waste to a company that is based in Switzerland. This company has a sound track record of dealing with mercury and mercury-containing waste and has the necessary capacity and authorisations to do so. The department’s primary concern is the safe and expeditious disposal of the waste to avoid any environmental harm,” Modise said.

Several attempts to get a comment from Neville Naicker, a director of the Thor Chemicals’ SA subsidiary, Guernica, failed. Naicker, who is leading the company’s delegation in the talks, earlier declined to comment to journalists, only saying he will talk after the negotiations with the government have borne fruit.

Bobby Peek, director of environmental lobby group groundWork, said pressure from local environmental organisations on the one hand and local communities on the other had forced the government to finally take action after more than two decades of neglect.

“We have always maintained that the waste stockpiles can only be treated outside SA because we have never had the facilities to deal with mercury toxic waste locally. This mercurial waste should never have come to SA in the first place. The toxic waste sludge is made up of a mixture of mercury sludge, arsenic and other organic compounds, making it difficult to treat,” Peek said. He added that the government must also consider the plight of scores of former Thor Chemicals workers.

“There are many [former] workers and families who were affected by the Thor Chemicals operation and we believe they have never received a just and fair long-term settlement commensurate with the loss they suffered,” he said.

One of these workers is 55-year-old Mbongeni Ndawonde, who worked at the factory for more than two years. He said he was ordered to stop working at Thor Chemicals when he began to be sickly. His friend Petros Mkhize died several years ago. He had his leg amputated after working at the plant.

“I also suffered a lot myself. After my spell at the plant, I suffered from a number of ailments. My body is always shaking and my relationship suffered because I couldn’t perform sexually. We have not been compensated,” he said.

Hlela Malombo Nxumalo, a councillor for Fredville and other areas near Cato Ridge, said community members want the plant and its dangerous chemicals to be removed from the area as soon as possible. He said community members held a march to the site recently after part of the plant burnt down.

“These chemicals are very dangerous. We are concerned because of the danger to humans and animals if they spill into local rivers,” he said.