In 1950 the area around the hamlet of Cato Ridge in South Africa's KwaZulu Natal was pristine veldt with scattered thorn trees edging what European colonizers called The Valley of a Thousand Hills. That year agents of a manganese smelter bought up thousands of acres and began erecting Feralloys. The ore is mined in the north of the country and Cato Ridge was selected because it has a rail line, land and labor was abundant and cheap... and "no one" lived here.
At about the same time my English immigrant grandfather bought 350 adjacent acres. As a child I'd travel by train with my mother from the then small port city of Durban to visit, ride horses, and play in the veldt.
Feralloys began smelting in 1957 and during my childhood the facility, less than one kilometer away, puffed out black, brown, white, or pinkish smoke and flared excess gas into the still sweet air.
For decades the company threw the black slag by-product of the manganese reduction process down the escarpment where the Ximba people live, breath, and use water from nearby streams to drink, wash, and water their crops.
Front view of Assmang surrounded by its own slag
There is a very long and often sordid because exploitative history that accompanies the smelter now known as Assmang Cato Ridge Works (ACRW). In summary, workers suffer manganese poisoning, the escarpment and plateau suffer environmental degradation, and ordinary people living in the area are only just waking up to the suffering around them...and what they can do about it.
Assmang was forced, relatively
recently, to add scrubbers to some of the smoke stacks and to stop
tossing slag over the escarpment. The most visible and still growing
pyramid of slag is north of the facility. There are several smaller
dump sites on the grounds and at least one on the south side
contains concentrated toxic "bag dust" also known as "fines"
from the scrubbers. For a few years this was processed into
comparatively inert concrete pellets. Two years ago a major explosion
in one of the six continuously running furnaces and seven
gruesome deaths ended that process. Now bag dust lies on the open
ground exposed to wind and rain while the company puzzles about what
to do with it.
Slimes dam excavated so that more recent toxic material can be dumped into it.
After the fatal explosion a monitoring committee (MC) was set up to meet every month now every two months to allow Interested & Affected Parties to feel they have some insight into how the facility manages its waste.
I attended the mid-February MC meeting since one of Assmang's 22 installed air quality monitoring stations sits on my home turf. I learned our property is in direct line of fire for toxic plumes...but I should not call this a "hotspot." Environmental contractor representative Jan Potgieter, the air quality monitor's monitor, first used the word "hotspot" and when I questioned that, he corrected himself and insisted the note taker expunge "hotspot" from meeting minutes and replace it with "potential high impact zone."
Nevertheless I was surprised that we lie in a "potential high impact zone." The dispersion map I had examined before the meeting plotted hotspots elsewhere... namely, in The Valley where rural Africans live who, due to financial constraints, are unable to make MC meetings to express their alarm at living in hotspots.
Actually, this surprise arose at the end of the meeting. An earlier surprise occurred when Assmang's meeting coordinator told the two dozen or so participants that the bag dust would lie on the open ground until the company received some sort of official that is, governmental go-ahead to process it. That had been due last April ('09) and expected "a certainty" according to the meeting coordinator this April ('10). And this surprise came after an earlier one when meeting participants visited the site of two slimes dams that store the wet toxic by-product from the furnaces. Keeping it wet discourages dispersion by wind...that is increasingly strong here as climate change affects weather patterns.
The site visit was a bust: someone had not talked to someone who was to ensure that someone else would unlock the gate and allow us entrance beyond the electric fence surrounding the slimes dams. We trooped back to the meeting after learning that the toxic material had been excavated from the slimes dams and now lay on the open ground so that more recent toxic material could be dumped into the dam. The "old" but not inert debris will lie on the open ground until a plan for it can be thought up and implemented. And, yes, some sort of official governmental and municipal go-ahead is required for this process too.
Assmang representatives are open about the company not meeting the agreed upon target date of 2018 to reduce all slag to zero. The contractor in charge of this feat said, "Zero slag is impossible as the furnaces produce slag every moment of every day." Apparently, the best we can hope for is to reduce the footprint of the northern slag dump and cover, cap, and grow grass on what remains. This means modifying the landscape and adding a green ziggurat with a 3:1 gradient rising to a height "somewhat lower" than the current black rectangle.
Judging by what I heard at the MC 2018 is a very optimistic date to accomplish anything significant never mind actually reduce any of the toxic material blowing around Assmang Cato Ridge Works.Did I mention that southern Africa is feeling the brunt of climate change? That storms are more intense, wind stronger, and rain heavier here? I can only imagine what awaits those of us in the "potential high impact zones" while plans are created and designed, then Environmental Impact Assessments written, submitted and responded to and then, eventually, implemented.
Moreover, today's South African government and local officials are getting a handle on just how neoliberalism works... something business and industry has known about and benefited from for decades. And as the neoliberal direction becomes more defined and more entrenched here so, too, do officials see and benefit from the wildly exciting profits generated at the cost of people and communities. Hotspots...oops, I mean potential high impact zones be damned.