Niren Tolsi & Lloyd Gedye
Turmeric runs through Merebank, a suburb in Durban’s southern industrial basin. In this mainly Hindu community, it is used for cooking and in brides’ cleansing rituals before weddings. Turmeric mixed with water acts as a homeopathic remedy against skin rashes and irritations in homes, and, across the road from the Lanxess chemical plant on Tomango Road, it is drawn in lines below a vermillion dot on a shrine of mounded earth protected by a canopy of saris – a religious altar standing, almost, against industrial pollution and bad luck.
It also seeps and runs in the water underground, and colours how Merebank residents living close to the chemical plant describe the Chromium Six in their groundwater after heavy rain caused yellow torrents to rise up in 2004.
“When I saw it, there was a big hole in the ground from construction and the water was rushing through. The groundwater was yellow, like a manja [colloquial for turmeric] colour,” remembered Babs Govender, a community activist who lives across the road from the 24-hour plant that produces chrome-tanning salts for the leather industry.
The 2004 appearance of yellow groundwater happened while the municipality was replacing asbestos water pipes in the area, but such incidents pockmark the history of the community.
The discovery, according to residents, caused panic in a community that had, over several decades, lived, first in oblivion, then with an increasing sense of unease, about the health effects of industrial pollution in this area bordering Durban’s harbour. It’s a place dominated by more than 300 industrial-scale facilities, including agrochemical plants, paper mills, and two oil refineries that dominate the skyline “like ships going nowhere”, according to some residents.
Several residents said that when the presence of chrome in the groundwater was initially raised with Lanxess and the municipality in 2004, “very little” was done, and “no one wanted to take responsibility”.
Rico Euripidou, a health campaigner for groundWork, an environmental justice service seeking to improve the quality of life of vulnerable people in South Africa, said the corporate denial was based on fears about potential civil claims: “Bayer [Lanxess’s German mother company] wanted to blame everybody else. It’s Chrome Six – nobody else uses it … It would be remiss of any chrome-tanning industry not to think they had an impact on the environment.”
Further water sampling proved that “the levels of chromium were very elevated, and that there was a large plume of chromium in an aquifer in the groundwater,” said Euripidou.
Two years later, after community pressure eventually led to engagement, an agreement on a remediation programme to pump the water for extraction and the subsequent treatment of chrome was finally reached. The municipality, meanwhile, replaced the asbestos water pipes running into homes with ones less toxic.
“The community was afraid, but we carried on. We were still drinking the water,” said Govender.
On 30 June 2006, Arthur Field’s phone rang. Field, a director of civil engineering company EsorFranki, answered to find John Jackson, the director of construction and engineering company Stefanutti & Bressan, on the line. Jackson wanted to discuss the tender to provide the infrastructure for the Lanxess groundwater remediation project.
By the end of their conversation, the two men had agreed that Stefanutti & Bressan would submit a bid for the remediation project that would be considerably higher than EsorFranki’s. The latter would be well positioned to win the tender and, in exchange, would pay Stefanutti & Bressan a loser’s fee of R1-million. (Ed’s Note: Arthur Field denied receiving the call from Stefanutti’s John Jackson despite it being stated in affidavits the latter company made to the NPA)
In an affidavit submitted to the National Prosecuting Authority, Clive Reucassel, director of Steffanutti & Bressan KwaZulu-Natal Civils KZN, admitted Jackson had agreed “to the inclusion of tender fees” with Field.
Testifying before the Competition Tribunal in July 2013, Roy McLintock, managing director of the newly branded Esor, previously EsorFranki, explained the background of how the plan was hatched: “We were in the process of negotiating [the contract] with Lanxess and they appointed a new project manager who felt that the client should get two prices, and he had a favoured contractor in terms of Stefanutti & Bressan and he put them into the mix and we received an unsolicited call from Stefanutti & Bressan saying that they weren’t keen on the project and they would be happy to stand back for a fee.”
McLintock testified their agreement to collude “doesn’t make any business sense … We were in the process of negotiation. There were rates on the table, so there was no real opportunity to really benefit from anything like this.”
EsorFranki won the R37-million tender in 2006. A year later, the company duly paid the loser’s fee to Stefanutti & Bressan in four R250 000 tranches — in June, August, September and October. McLintock testified that, to avoid suspicion, invoices for “plant hire” from Stefanutti & Bressan were fabricated. Stefanutti & Bressan scored a cool R1 million for mahala.
The project to lay pipes and build infrastructure for the remediation project was completed in 2008. In July 2013, EsorFranki settled with the Competition Commission by paying a R155 850 fine. Like many of the admission of guilt fines paid by other construction companies involved in the cartel, the fee was considered derisory by activists and public commentators – the companies had argued that theirs were victimless crimes.
The rains – a sign of good luck in Africa – have, over the years, consistently exposed the yellow poison running through Merebank to its community during heavy downpours.
Anand Maharaj, another resident of Tomango Road, recalled several yards in the area being flooded with yellow water after heavy rains in 2002. Almost 20 years earlier, in 1983, his father had been digging a 10m foundation for an outbuilding he wanted to put up in his back yard when heavy rains fell.
“The foundation filled up with yellow water,” Maharaj remembered, “My dad was down in [the foundation] using a bucket to scoop out the water.” Maharaj Senior worked furiously against the rising water all day, and, by the afternoon, he had to be rushed to the doctor because of giant welts all over his skin. The doctors ascertained poisoning, but couldn’t pinpoint the cause. Maharaj says his father’s health deteriorated from that day, and he died four years later.
Industry has long hid behind its concentration in the broader area to avoid blame for the high occurrence of asthma, leukaemia and other cancers in the South Basin.
Des D’Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, an environmental justice umbrella organisation for 16 affiliate bodies in the South Basin, said when companies were called out on the health impact of their polluting, they were either “evasive” or queried the direct causal link to their specific emissions.
“Sometimes companies query lifestyle choices, like whether asthmatics or cancer sufferers are smokers,” said D’Sa. “In 1994, people at Engen and Sapref [Shell and BP South African Petroleum Refineries] were attributing the high levels of asthma in the area to the cockroaches and the types of carpets in people’s homes,” he added incredulously.
Yet, the abnormally high incidence of respiratory and heart diseases, coupled with scientific reports establishing high pollution levels, is disturbing.
Govender, whose family has been living across the road from the Lanxess factory since the early 60s, said his brother, Sigamony, died of stomach cancer at the age of 65. Even more traumatic for his family was the death of his sister, Kogila, a few years after the family moved into their Tomango Road house. She was only 18 when she died from stomach cancer.
“Her death affected my parents very badly. We used to go so often to her gravesite after she passed away. I must have been about nine or 10 years old, and used to go every week,” he said.
Almost every family on Tomango Road has similar stories. Maharaj’s brother died in 2003 after being plagued his entire life by respiratory problems; his family claim his heart attack was induced by the weak state of his lungs.
Maharaj’s wife, Lalie, could breathe freely before their marriage, but was diagnosed with asthma a year after moving into their home from Red Hill in 1982. His sister-in-law, Asha, said she lived in the Merebank house with her husband from 1995, but moved to Chatsworth after his death when their daughter, six at the time, increasingly suffered from respiratory problems.
These illnesses could be attributed to any one, or a combination of, the myriad polluters in the vicinity, but what is certain is that there are elevated levels of hexavalent chromium, or Chromium Six, in the groundwater in the Tomango Road area. This was confirmed when the eThekwini water department tested water quality in the area in 2004.
The production and apparently reckless maintenance and removal of Chromium Six in the area goes back to the establishment of the Chrome Chemicals factory in 1947 by Marble Lime and Associated Industries. Shortly after production began, a plantation of 3 000 eucalyptus trees at neighbouring Clairwood Turf Club was destroyed, according to city records.
The Turf Club had complained to the city about effluent, storm water control and poor air quality control at the site, and that “acid fumes from the factory were making the club’s employees sick”. According to groundWork’s research, a subsequent investigation by the authorities “found extensive on-site contamination from spills”, as well as off-site contamination.
According to Himansu Baijnath, honorary research professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Biological and Conservation Sciences, Clairwood Racecourse has endured species depletion from 123 to less than 45 since 1968. “There were three types of indigenous mice at the racecourse, cranes, orchids – amazing biodiversity. Some groups of plants had seven species, and now there is nothing left,” said Baijnath. The academic grew up in Merebank and was conferred the municipality’s Living Legends award for his environmental work as a biodiversity scientist, which included the discovery of the racecourse lily (Kniphofia pauciflora), once thought to be extinct in the wild, at Clairwood.
The 91-year-old racecourse is set to be replaced by a “logistics hub” and truck terminal as the harbour’s dug-out port expands further into the South Basin area. The move will remove an important “green lung” in the area, and dramatically increase vehicle congestion and pollution. The professor is desperately fighting to ensure the preservation of whatever species are left.
Childhood for Baijnath is a bittersweet memory. Alongside the excitement of sneaking into the racecourse, where his brother and uncle worked, to watch the races under the gumtrees and beginning an early fascination with fauna and flora, he also recalls yellow streams running through the suburb’s low-lying areas.
He is sceptical about Lanxess’s claims of the Chromium Six plume in the Tomango Road area is being contained. “When we look at water movement, and when you look at Durban bay and Clairwood and you go back 100 years, this was all marshland. I still find it difficult to accept that when you look at water movement, everything is moving towards the bay, and then we still talk about a contained plume when it may actually be the tip of the iceberg. When I was young, I used to walk through yellow sand, barefoot, along yellow dunes, and I think this is the tip of the iceberg. I have nothing to prove it, except for the water movement,” Baijnath told a remediation task team meeting in November 2015.
Baijnath feels Merebank “is a community of people sitting on a time bomb … How many human beings have we lost in Merebank to Chromium? [Industries] are not prepared to accept the truth.”
Residents of Tomango Road remembered that until less than two decades ago, the Lanxess chemical facility was not fenced off, and that mounds of yellow powder would lie unattended across the road, getting picked up by the wind and moving through the community. Trucks would trundle in to remove the yellow powder to the dumpsites, sometimes leaving with their cargo uncovered and prone to dispersal.
Annie Naidoo, a 60-year-old resident of Tomango Road, said in the 70s and 80s, the clothes on her washing line would be covered in either yellow from the chrome mounds, or black from the general air pollution.
“We had a white car – I used to have to wash the yellow off it,” said Naidoo. “Nobody ever told us about chromium. We heard about it from our neighbours.”
Manufacturing sodium dichromate for the tanning of leather for shoes, belts and other goods produces a significant amount of “reject ore”, some of it containing soluble hexavalent chrome, or Chromium Six – the toxic part of chromium – according to a groundWork’s newsletter.
The report noted that, such was the factory’s rate of production, an 11-acre dumping site for reject ore near Sialkot Crescent in Merebank reached its capacity nine years after the plant was established. Reject ore was also being dumped nearby the Umlaas Canal.
Tomango Road resident Anil Ramlukan, who was born in Merebank in 1950, recalled, “to me, as a youngster, the yellow was normal … I don’t think I saw the colour change in all the time I lived here.” Ramlukan remembered a childhood often spent playing barefoot football among the yellow dunes, which also provided a shortcut to the nearby train station.
According to city investigations in the 60s and 70s, Chromium Six was not found at the company’s official dumpsites. But groundWork’s report concluded that there may be other unknown historical dumpsites, which could change the risk-assessment outcomes of various reporting eras, and that groundwater migrating into storm water drains and transported away from the area still required treatment.
It highlighted that contamination reporting to stakeholders and civil society was “sometimes inadequate and incoherent with insufficient data” for the general public “to determine the series of events that led up to the current situation”, or to allow for discussions to compare contamination levels “to national and international safety standards”. In short, the community remains largely in the dark – through corporate evasiveness and the inaccessible, scientific nature of the reporting – about potential threats to their health.
Accepting there was no risk to public health and that the drinking water was safe “might be fundamentally flawed” when considering the deficiencies in the reporting and oversight, groundWork concluded.
In 1968, Chrome Chemicals was bought out by a joint venture between Albright & Wilson and the German company Bayer. By 1973, Bayer had taken 100% control of Chrome Chemicals. Following two joint-venture realignments of the company that saw the formation of Chrome International South Africa (Cisa), Bayer eventually emerged with complete control again in 2007, renaming it Lanxess Cisa.
Nearing 50 years of production in the area, Bayer’s concern after its pollution levels and the health consequences for the neighbouring communities appears to have been consistently deficient.
“During apartheid, none of the companies would engage with us, including Lanxess,” said Roshan Ramdin, principal of St Mary’s Primary School, and a political activist and former chairperson of the Merebank Ratepayers’ Association. “Because they wouldn’t engage, we would go on the offence. We did things like place nails on the roads to puncture the tyres of Engen’s trucks, which eventually led to them building a road that bypassed the community. This brought down the rate of accidents and pollution in the residential areas.”
“Lanxess was dumping at places like the airport … We forced them into communicating with us and forced them to disclose what they were doing, but this only arrived after Nelson Mandela’s visit,” said Ramdin, referring to a presidential visit in the late 90s when the community held a protest that drew the attention of the late former president, who stopped his cavalcade to enquire about the living conditions in the area.
Mandela’s intervention shamed many companies into signing good neighbourly agreements, and introduced a level of engagement between communities and industries.
But Ramdin felt not enough had been done by industry, or government, to protect the health of the community. “The local government hasn’t found a way to balance people’s rights to clean air and healthy lives with industrial and economic needs. Its attitude since then suggests it will always come out for capital … The city continues to bring in more industrial development, which makes the lives of people even more unbearable so that people will eventually leave on their own … The container depots and truck companies [planned for the Clairwood development] will have a knock-on effect. There will also be harbour creep, leading to violence, prostitution and alcoholism.”
Activists such as D’Sa and Govender have long argued that the major polluters in the South Basin should be required to go greener, but also turn some of their huge profits towards community social investment programmes such as providing resources for cash-strapped schools struggling for simple things like paper and science equipment, bursaries, and 24-hour health facilities.
Some have complied, many have not, and several residents have suggested that any money from industry usually comes with the caveat that people need to “shut up” about pollution and its health consequences.
Shaun Folkard, the principal of Alipore Primary School, situated three streets away from the Lanxess plant, holds a similar view: “Industry will give only to the schools that won’t give them trouble,” he said. Folkard has been at Alipore Primary since 1997 and has a long memory of how industry representatives have engaged with local schools – mainly to get them to “shut up” about the effects of pollution.
Recently, a consultant for the port expansion project called a meeting because she was “‘looking for schools with strong principals to help’”.
“It was to buy us – I couldn’t accept money from them on one hand while my students are protesting on the other … They felt they could come here and spread a little sugar in the area,” said Folkard.
Alipore Primary, which has six wells on its property monitoring groundwater contamination, has enjoyed the largesse of big business. Once, in the late 90s, when government withdrew from paying for cleaning services, Lanxess cut the school’s grass. It was never repeated because, as a company representative told Folkard, the company couldn’t “do it for all the schools all the time”.
Lanxess followed up with another act of “good neighbourliness” after heavy rains in 2007 led to more yellow groundwater emerging, some of which flooded the playgrounds where children would often play. According to Folkard, there was “panic among the children” when there was a breakout of dizziness, itchiness and stomach cramp.
“Lanxess paid for the children to be tested, and no chrome was found,” said Folkard, “but if you do your research, you know chrome builds up in your body over a long period of time depending on your exposure. So the eventual conclusion was that the scratching was related to ‘mass hysteria’ among the kids.” Teachers and children stopped drinking the water at the school.
Soon after the incident, Lanxess built the school a multipurpose court, mini netball court, a mathematics laboratory equipped with an overhead projector and laptops, and resurfaced the school’s ground. Lanxess also provided a mathematics teacher who didn’t finish a two-year stint at the school because it “didn’t have the funds to have a teacher there”, said Folkard.
“I asked what was it all for, and they said it was merely ‘good neighbourliness’. After what happened with the children, it was a sweetener,” said Folkard.
Eighty-six-year-old Perisamy Govender knows the South Basin like the tattoo of Davy Jones on the inside of his forearm. The medical doctor has written books about the area and its inhabitants, including Legends of the Tide, about the 19th-century Indian seine netters who fished Durban harbour.
A good-humoured raconteur, he can track the port’s expansion through memory, oral history and his own research from the 1920s, through industrialisation during World War II, the rise of Afrikaner nationalism and the entrenchment of apartheid, which saw more “coloureds and Indians moved to the area as pools of cheap labour”.
Naidoo said that when he started working in the community in the early 50s and 60s, diseases linked to unsafe working conditions and pollution were already beginning to present themselves: “The problem was that there were factory doctors – they are now called occupational health doctors – who were paid by the factory. They were embedded there, and they rarely found links between the workers’ illnesses and the working conditions. They were compliant in covering up the illnesses because they felt compelled not to put their bosses, and the factory, in a bad light.”
By the mid-70s, Naidoo recalled “lymphomas and leukaemia among young children, skin conditions like contact dermatitis – skin that weeps – and psoriasiform”.
By the early 80s, Naidoo was treating patients who were working at Lanxess, then known at Non-Ferrous Metal Works. Their conditions were “typical of exposure to chrome”, according to Naidoo. “I remember one patient whose nose was collapsing. He had a perforated nasal septum – holes in it, which affected his breathing – and it must have been because of his exposure to Chromium Six,” said Naidoo.
Naidoo referred the patient to the company doctor, who “refused to take it up because, he said, there was not enough evidence to draw a link between the patient’s exposure to Chromium Six at work and his health”. A letter to the then-University of Natal medical school was also ignored, according to Naidoo. He remembered the patient instituting legal action against the company, being fired, and subsequently losing his medical aid benefits, which meant he soon stopped his visits to Naidoo’s practice.
Another doctor in the area, Baruth Seetharam, who opened his practice in 1976, testified at a workman’s compensation hearing involving Lanxess employees in the late 70s, but said the Labour Court application had been unsuccessful because “it was just my medical impression – there was no clear science to judge”.
Seetharam said the effects of Chromium Six remained difficult to pinpoint, but that oesophageal and nasal cancers appeared common among people who had been exposed over long periods to the toxin through work.
“If they were disposing chrome sludge into the soil, it would be criminal,” said Seetharam. “Chrome has a half-life of thousands of years.”
It is an observation that was apparent at the Lanxess office during a feedback meeting of the task team for the remediation process in November 2015: since the process started in 2008, 267 tonnes of chrome have been recovered from the system, and the report-back suggested that this would have to “go on indefinitely”.
The more cynical community members, including Professor Baijnath, have begun to wonder if Lanxess is now using the remediation process to mine chrome, turning more human tragedy into profit.
On the Chrome contamination of groundwater
Lanxess told The Con that some of the issues relating to chrome contamination dated back sixty years and that it was “quite unrealistic” for the company to make meaningful comment on events “that long ago”.
It said that Bayer became invested in the Merebank plant in 1968 and any operations from 1947 until then were conducted by Marble Lime and Associated Industries.
It maintains that, according to health studies, residents in Merebank are safe from the chrome contamination.
According to Lanxess the first indication of groundwater contamination outside the Merebank plant appeared in April 2004. It claims an investigation was immediately conducted and groundwater contamination was identified under a portion of the Merebank residential area with the results communicated to the residents at a public meeting held in November 2004.
“At this time a Task Team was set up to incorporate all interested parties i.e. authorities, NGO’s, media and residents,” Lanxess said in written answers to The Con. The team continues to meet for monitoring purposes.
The company maintains that the groundwater is “confined to an area immediately adjacent to our plant” and includes approximately 36 private residential properties, a portion of the former Clairwood Racecourse and the sports field at Alipore Primary
“It was established that there is no risk as long as no boreholes are sunk or holes are dug down to the water table,” it said.
Lanxess described concerns raised by teachers at Alipore Primary School that any assistance from the company came with pre-conditions and may be perceived as hush money as “surprising” but stated a willingness to address the “perception”.
On the construction cartel rigging the “pump and treat” programme
Lanxess said that a remediation scheme known as “pump and treat” has been operational since June 2008 and that it aims to prevent the underground chrome plume spreading further into the area.
According to Lanxess, neither it, nor its German-based parent company, Bayer, were aware of the collusion on the “pump and treat” project before it was reported in the media in June 2013.
“Since we were unaware of the inflated contract price there was never a question of funding being limited in the addressing of the remediation and allied issues,” said Lanxess. “Neither Bayer nor Lanxess have placed orders for any work with either Esor or Stefanutti following the reports from the Competition Commission.”
Lanxess said both Stefanutti and Esor had “sought to address the imbalance caused to the company by their collusion” but did not detail what this meant.
It did not respond to questions regarding concerns that the company was actually mining the chrome for use through its remediation scheme.
Main Photograph: Anand and Lalie Maharaj in their Tomango Road home – by Durban Centre of Photography
This work was assisted by a Taco Kuiper Grant from the Valley Trust, administered by Wits University’s Journalism School.