Saturday 21 April 2012

Get nature in order


South Africa has trusted itself very much into the environmental spotlight, being listed as among the top 20 carbon dioxide producing nations in the world (on the negative side) and by seemingly positive developments such as:
The United Nations Climate Change Conference that was hosted in Durban from 28 November to 9 December 2011, with the  imposing theme " WORKING TOGETHER Saving Tomorrow Today".
Under the National Climate Change Respoinse White Paper, Published in October 2011. This fairly impressive document is summarised in the obejctive:
“South Africa will build the climate resilience of the country, its economy and its people and manage the transition to a climate-resilient, equitable and internationally competitive lower-carbon economy and society in a manner that simultaneously addresses South Africa’s over-riding national priorities for sustainable development, job creation, improved public and environmental health, poverty ereadication, and social equitality. In nthis regards, South Africa Will:
  • Effectively manage inevitable climate change impacts through interventions that build and sustain South Africa’s social, economic and environmental resilience and emergency response capacity.
  • Make fair contribution to the global effort to stabilise GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that avoids dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system within a time frame that enables economic, and environmental development to proceed in a sustainable manner.
But the question reamains of how South Africa is going to achieve this very noble goals as set out above?
Major emitters have been named (not yet shamed), amongst which is ArcelorMittal South Africa (AMSA) – it is being placed forth in South Africa with a figure of 10.73 million tonnes/year of CO being emitted (Carbon Disclosure Project – 2010). Examining the response of the Government to AMSA in the past, one could not help but to conclude that the “soft” approach to AMSA (and it’s often total disregard of the environment) was slightly tinted by the carrot of a ZAR 9.1 billion empowerment deal AMSA was dangling, that would have involved the “sale” of 26% of it’s shares to black investors – which coincidentally included the son of President Zuma. After AMSA announced the scrapping of the deal in September 2011, due mostly to the negative reaction the deal elicited – not least from ArcelorMittal shareholders – as it was not done in a transparent way (rather in the ArcelorMittal way!), can the public now expect AMSA to be held ccountable for it’s misdeeds?

Not only does AMSA produce vast amounts of CO 2, but also of CH4 -  Methane  - a greenhouse gas with  a warming potential over 100 years of 25X that of CO2 (Shindell, D.T.;Faluvegi, G; koch, D.M, Schmidt,G.A.;Unger, N; Bauer, S.E. ( 2009). " Improved Attribution of Climate Forcing to Emissions". Science 326( 953):716-8)

One of the main sources of CH 4 production is from gas flaring  -  with 4 production is from gas flaring -  with 0.27 metric tonnes being produced per ton CO2 released from flaring, effectively increasing the effect of their emissions - when measured against direct CO2 being emitted -  considerably. In 2003 a company called EcoElectrica (a female empowerment group) started negotiations with ISCOR ( which later became ISPAT-ISCOR, when Mr. Laksami Mittal took it over, then Mittal Steel -  then finally ArcelorMittal) to develop a project generate electricity from the gas being flared in Vanderbijlpark. After working with EcoElectrica on the basis of a joint venture on the project duing 2006. ArcelorMittal eventually withdrew from the project and pursued it themselves -  leaving EcoElectrica the option of a legal balttle if they wanted to protect their rights. At the end of 2007( December) AMSA even filled a Project Design Document ( PDD) with the UNFCC for registration of a Clean Development Mechanism ( CDM) - project entitled:" ArcelorMittal South Africa Supuls Gas to Energy Project".

In 2008 AMSA filed a scoping report called “ENVIRONMENTAL SCOPING REPORT FOR THE INSTALLATION OF A POWER GENERATING PLANT USING EXCESS FURNACE BY-PRODUCT GASES, ARCELORMITTAL SOUTH AFRICA - VANDERBIJLPARK WORKS, VANDERBIJLPARK”. This plant is still to be completed and in a issue of Engineering News dated 29 July 2010 it quoted the CEO of Vanderbijlpark – Johan Fourie telling Engineering News that the group is still assessing the economics of the different power projects, "some big, others small", adding that not all the opportunities would necessarily prove viable. That is a look at but some of the gasses being directly released by AMSA into the atmosphere.

With cognisance of the “Waste Management Flagship Programme” contained in the Governmental White Paper, the solid waste being produced my AMSA also warrants a closer look. In 2009 AMSA produced 3.5 million tonnes of waste material at its Vanderbijlpark facility (ArcelorMittal South Africa Sustainability Report 2009). Although the plant has a capacity of 4.4 million tonnes of liquid steel (ArcelorMittal South Africa Sustainability Report 2009), it produces roughly about 3.5 million tonnes per year (Engineering News, & January 2008).This equates to 1 ton of waste for each ton of steel being produced. In a similar vein to the gas recycling project referred to above, a Brick making project was also proposed to Vanderbijpark in 2003. It went a few steps further, with the plant being constructed on the Vanderbijlpark site. It got a formal mention in the Sustainability Report, 2009 (quoted above). AMSA stated under the heading “Waste Reduction Projects” that Phase 1 of the clay brick project would reduce disposal through dumping by 150 000 ton per annum, and that phase 1 was to have been implemented in 2010 with “commercial negotiations in progress”. Solid waste being dumped on the open dumpsites at the Vanderbijpark plant could have been worked away through the manufacturing of clay bricks. The first dump site at the plant was closed in December 2010, holding about 140 million cubic meters of solid waste material – according to Karien Zantov – Environmental Manager for AMSA (quoted in Engineering News, July 2011). In addition this plant could also have used flared gas, and it could have used waste water from the steel plant.

All efforts to get this plant operational by the developing company has been frustrated by AMSA and they have apparently initiated a process to buy the plant and process out, but have been stalling the process since 2009 – whilst millions more tonnes of waste material have been dumped. Although this material does not directly contribute to any GHG emissions, it remains at risk to combust due to the high carbon content of some of the material being dumped. All the while though, it leaches materials such as iron, boron, manganese, magnesium, sodium, calcium and lithium (to name but a few elements) into the ground and into the Vaal River system. The local inhabitants around the plant has been for years trying to fight this, but has been stymied with AMSA’s financial might and “untouchable” tag (maybe as a result of the BEE deal referred to herein?). Lithium for example is known corrosive and requires special handling to avoid skin contact. Breathing lithium dust or lithium compounds (which are often alkaline) initially irritate the nose and throat, while higher exposure can cause a build-up of fluid in the lungs, leading to pulmonary edema. The metal itself is a handling hazard because of the caustic hydroxide produced when it is in contact with moisture. Lithium is safely stored in non-reactive compounds such as naphtha. (Furr, A. K. (2000). CRC handbook of laboratory safety. Boca Raton: CRC Press. pp. 244–246.) The combined Lithium leachate of all the waste streams dumped at Vanderbijlpark is 4.2 parts per million, whilst for Manganese it is 1 458 parts per million. Wikipedia cites the following:

Manganese compounds are less toxic than those of other widespread metals such as nickel and copper.[42] However, exposure to manganese dusts and fumes should not exceed the ceiling value of 5 mg/m3 even for short periods because of its toxicity level.[43] Manganese poisoning has been linked to impaired motor skills and cognitive disorders.[44] The permanganate exhibits a higher toxicity than the manganese(II) compounds. The fatal dose is about 10 g, and several fatal intoxications have occurred. The strong oxidative effect leads to necrosis of the mucous membrane. For example, the esophagus is affected if the permanganate is swallowed. Only a limited amount is absorbed by the intestines, but this small amount shows severe effects on the kidneys and on the liver.[45][46] In 2005, a study suggested a possible link between manganese inhalation and central nervous system toxicity in rats.[47] It is hypothesized that long-term exposure to the naturally occurring manganese in shower water puts up to 8.7 million Americans at risk.[47][48][49] A form of neurodegeneration[50] similar to Parkinson's Disease called "manganism" has been linked to manganese exposure amongst miners and smelters since the early 19th century.[51] Allegations of inhalation-induced manganism have been made regarding the welding industry. Manganese exposure in United States is regulated by Occupational Safety and Health Administration.[52]According to results from a 2010 study,[53] higher levels of exposure to manganese in drinking water are associated with increased intellectual impairment and reduced intelligence quotients in school-age children.

Clinical toxicity Manganism has occurred in persons employed in the production or processing of manganese alloys, patients receiving total parenteral nutrition, workers exposed to manganese-containing fungicides such as maneb, and abusers of drugs such as methcathinone made with potassium permanganate. Excessive exposure may be confirmed by measurement of blood or urine manganese concentrations.[54] Chronic exposure to excessive Mn levels can lead to a variety of psychiatric and motor disturbances, termed manganism. Generally, exposure to ambient Mn air concentrations in excess of 5 μg Mn/m3 can lead to Mn-induced symptoms. Increased ferroportin protein expression in human embryonic kidney (HEK293) cells is associated with decreased intracellular Mn concentration and attenuated cytotoxicity, characterized by the reversal of Mn-reduced glutamate uptake and diminished lactate ehydrogenase (LDH) leakage.[55](End of Wikipedia quote) A study by the American Environment Protection Agency (EPA) called “Drinking Water Health Advisor for Manganese” dated January 2004 quote the under-mentioned study regarding the effects of manganese contamination through leaching into drinking water: A recently published case study (Woolf et al., 2002) reported increased manganese levels in the hair and blood of a 10-year-old child exposed to increased manganese in drinking water. The child had been ingesting drinking water supplied by a well for 5 years prior to a clinic visit for evaluation of over-exposure to manganese. In addition, the family lived in a house near a toxic waste dump. An evaluation of the well water performed four months prior to the child's health assessment indicated that manganese and iron levels in the water were both elevated, with concentrations of 1.21(reference level, 0.05 mg/L) and 15.7 mg/L, respectively.

The child's whole blood and serum manganese levels were 3.82 :g/100 ml (reference normal, <1.4 :g/100 ml) and 0.90 :g/100 ml (reference normal, <0.265 :g/100 ml), respectively. The child's hair manganese level was 3,091 ppb of washed, acid-digested hair (reference normal, <260 ppb hair). Although the child's 16-year-old brother did not exhibit elevated blood manganese, he did have increased manganese in his hair. The 10-year-old did not exhibit any clinical effects of manganese over-exposure (cogwheeling, abnormally high muscle tone, fixed facies, etc.) and had good balance with closed eyes, although he did have trouble coordinating rapid alternating motor movements(this deficiency is consistent with the test performance of occupational workers chronically exposed to airborne manganese). Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the child's brain did not indicate any hyperintense signaling of the globus pallidus, basal ganglia, mid-brain or pons, which would indicate manganese deposition in these areas of the brain. Selective deposition of manganese in the globus pallidus and basal ganglia has been shown to occur in children and adults with chronic manganese overexposure (Devenyi et al., 1994; Hauser et al.1996). The absence of the signaling argues against manganese toxicity.  Results from a battery of neuropsychologic tests on the child indicated that global cognition was unimpaired.

While the plight of the residents around the Vanderbijlpark plant has been ignored in the past, it cannot be refuted that the leaching danger from the Vanderbijlpark dup-site and the continuation of the dumping practices of AMSA pose very real dangers. AMSA are one of the few remaining iron and steel producers worldwide that utilise open dumpsites for the disposal of their waste material. This gives them a massive cost of production advantage over their competitors that dispose of waste material to regulated dump sites (at a substantial price per ton of waste material). They clearly have proven solutions to some of their biggest environmental problems at hand, but chose not to employ these, as it is altogether too easy for them to continue with “business as usual” - as they are firstly allowed to do so, and secondly care more about making the extra profit, than spending it on a long-term strategy that will also benefit the rest of the people in South Africa, and the environment directly. Instead, as illustrated above, they choose to pay lipservice to their “commitment” to the environment. For South Africa – being squarely in the environmental spot-light at the moment – it is clearly a case of action speaking louder than words, and how the Government chose to act against companies like ArcelorMittal in the light of some of its practices illuminated herein will ultimately be how the Government will be judged in terms of its commitment to the environment in general.

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