Steel giant blasted

South African activists, workers and neighbours of Arcelor Mittal's plant in Vanderbijlpark have joined their colleagues around the world in protests against the international steel maker's shoddy environmental record.

South African activists, workers and neighbours of Arcelor Mittal's plant in Vanderbijlpark have joined their colleagues around the world in protests against the international steel maker's shoddy environmental record.

The protestors claim that Mittal is forcing out residents of properties in areas the company had polluted, "closing it off behind electric fencing and thus removing evidence contained in this polluted area from the public eye".

The township of Boipatong was still being polluted, which was causing residents grave health problems, the demonstrators said this week after a march on the company's plant in the Vaal.

They claim Mittal's effluent has also killed crabs and fish in the polluted stream that runs through the township, fed by run-off from the company's dumps.

The government has already declared the area a pollution priority area.

Mittal bought the apartheid state's steel producer, Iscor, whose plant in Vanderbijlpark has had a long and shocking record of environmental damage.

Residents and workers claim that pollution from the plant harms their health, contaminates ground water and poisons their animals.

Last year, the Green Scorpions swooped on the company's plant in neighbouring Vereeniging and found a slew of environmental problems.

The protestors this week said the Vanderbijlpark plant suffered from far bigger problems.

In a report handed to company officials on Tuesday, the protestors said Mittal was able to buy Iscor for a song because the apartheid regime's aging plants were guilty of such widespread pollution that other buyers were not interested.

"The steel mill, built just after [the decond world war] poured its effluent into unlined dams, contaminating the ground water from which Steel Valley smallholders drew their drinking water," the report says.

"It also released effluent into an unlined canal, where owners fronting on the canal used the water for irrigation and recreation.

"Steel Valley people developed a high incidence of health problems such as cancer and their farming activities suffered."

Though Mittal does not concede it has damaged the health of people, its communications director Tami Didiza boasted that the company had set aside R2billion for environmental remedial projects.

The Vaal Environmental Justice Association, which led this week's march on the Vanderbijlpark plant, said none of the money was being used to pay damages to residents whose health and property had been ruined by the company's pollution.

Phineas Malapela, the group's chairman, said Mittal had achieved its phenomenal success over the past few years by buying up old steel plants around the world and then cutting costs to the bone.

He said the cost cutting had come about at the expense of workers and measures to protect the environment.

Malapela pointed out that similar protests were taking place at nine other plants across the world, from India and Kazakhstan to Luxemburg and the US.

The same pattern of environmental degradation had occurred at all these Mittal-owned works.

The report of environmental damage at the company's plants was handed to Mittal Vanderbijlpark's safety health and environmental manager Thokozani Mdluli.

It was also presented at the parent company's general meeting in Luxemburg yesterday, where shareholders were asked to consider the cost of their profits in human health and environmental degradation.

Mdluli, environmental manager Catherine Maloa and plant manager Pieter Swanepoel all refused to discuss the allegations in the report.

They said Didiza was the only person authorised to discuss the details of issues for which they were directly responsible.

But Didiza was reported to be on his way to the plant and had not arrived by the time the protest ended.

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