Industrial pollution in Pietermaritzburg has reached critical levels, with recent surveys revealing that the emissions of several industries are far above the legal standard. Because Pietermaritzburg is situated in a valley, any air pollutants released in a specific area in the city will sink to the bottom of the valley and spread across it, thus affecting the entire city's population. However, neighborhoods situated in close proximity to industrial areas suffer greater effects than others.
Among the areas that are the worst affected by air pollution and other by-products of factory activity are the areas of Mountain Rise, Northdale, Eastwood, Allandale and Panorama Gardens, all of which are situated in the midst of one of Pietermaritzburg's heaviest industrial areas, Willowton. It is in this area that a large proportion of Pietermaritzburg's major polluters are found, such as Bayer, TDM Woodworks, Willowton Oil and Cake Mills and PG Bison.
In 2007, an article was released by The Tribune in which an industrial company FSS, situated on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, was accused of increasing toxicity in the city. Upon further investigation it was found that this increase in toxicity was largely a result of the activity of factories situated in Willowton.
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Probably the most infamous of all the above mentioned factories is Willowton Oil and Cake Mills. The factory has come under fire by the media several times following reports of increased health problems in residents living nearby. Despite many complaints from indignant inhabitants, the problem is still being ignored by government officials. Residents feel that their constitutional and environmental rights are being infringed upon by the government and municipality's indifference.
History of the pollution problem in Pietermaritzburg:
Over the years, an environmental NGO, Groundwork, has been taking air samples throughout the city in order to help city officials to better understand the air pollution problems in Pietermaritzburg. Their work pointed to the fact that Pietermaritzburg residents are and have for a long time been exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution, which are impacting on their health. Chemicals found to be present in the air included the following harmful chemicals: Benzene, Toloene, Xylene, Chlorobenzene, Chloroethane, and Chloromethane, Hydrogen Sulphide, Ethyl Benzene, Methyl Ethyl Ketone, Tetrachloroethane, and Styrene. Most of the above mentioned chemicals are produced by industrial activity and some were found to be present in the air in very high concentrations which exceeded health threshold levels and international standards. This problem has not yet been addressed.
The historical reality is that Pietermaritzburg has a pollution problem that neither the district nor the Air Quality Forum has been able to alleviate in any way.
Trish Collocott is a resident who has been challenging air pollution for many years. She complains that Pietermaritzburg air has always had the smell of an oil refinery lingering in it, but that it has also recently acquired a new smell, the smell of ammonia that is noticeable in various parts of the city depending on the direction of the wind. Collocott is one of many residents who believe that it is high time some action be taken regarding air pollution in Pietermaritzburg.
It has also been noted that in the winter months, Pietermaritzburg becomes 'a bowl of chemical soup' during which time residents are forced to stay indoors to avoid the sulphur and other toxic chemicals that are released by industries.
Willowton Oil and Cake Mills: History
Willowton Oil is family-owned business, which was established in 1970. It is situated on 266 Orhtmann Road, Pietermaritzburg and specializes in the refining of oil seeds and the manufacture of a variety of oil-based products.
The Process of Refining Edible Oils:
There are three basic processes involved in the refining of edible oils. They are: Neutralisation, Bleaching and Filtering.
Oil is neautralised in the neutralizer to remove Free Fatty Acids. Oil is heated to approximately 60°C by thermal fluid coils and is then stirred by a stirrer. Soap stock formed by a chemical reaction is allowed to settle at the bottom of the neutralizer where it is taken out into a soap pan.
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Neutralised oil is drawn into a vessel called a bleacher. Here, the colour of the oil is removed with the aid of chemicals such as carbon black and bleaching earth. Oil is heated up to 110°C and stirring is continued. The bleaching process takes place in a vacuum.
Bleached oil is then passed through a filter which separates chemicals such as carbon black from the oil. The clean bleached oil is then drawn into a deodorizer where the oil is heated above 110°C to remove the smell of the oil. The entire process takes place in a vacuum.
The filtered oil is sent to a cooler where heat is removed from it, after which it is filtered a second time to obtain completely refined, colourless oil.
A diagrammatic representation of the process
Types of waste produced as by-products of this process:
Most substances produced as by-products of factory activity are non-biodegradable. This term refers to substances that can not be broken down naturally through the activity of micro-organisms. They are also substances which are not found naturally in the environment and are thus classified as pollutants. Because pollutants are non-biodegradable, they are released into the environment and can not be easily removed. Accumulation of pollutants in the environment can be harmful to man's health and to other living organisms and the environment.
Air pollutants can be classified as either primary or secondary pollutants. Primary pollutants are substances that are released directly into the atmosphere, whereas secondary pollutants are formed in the air when primary pollutants interact with one another.
Willowton Oil and Cake Mills produce the following primary pollutants:
Particles, such as dust, smoke and soot.
Carbon Dioxide does not directly affect respiration. It is a greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming, thus increasing the amount of ground-level ozone present. Ground-level ozone contributes to dysfunction of the lungs and problems with the respiratory system.
CO binds to haemoglobin in the blood and lowers the ability of the body to transport oxygen in the blood. This leads to a shortage of oxygen that can result in dizziness, nausea and headaches. It also aggravates emphysema and can lead to chronic bronchitis. High concentrations will be fatal.
Low levels can cause irritation of the eyes and respiratory system. High levels can induce asthma, allergies and chronic bronchitis.
NO2 forms a component of photochemical smog. It can lead to eye and nose irritations, weakened lung functions, asthma, bronchitis and emphysema.
This is one of the components of CFC's. CFC's destroy the stratospheric ozone layer, allowing large amounts of harmful UV light to reach the earth, which contributes to skin cancer.
Fumes cause irritation of the eyes, skin and nose.
Particles with a diameter of 10 micro-metres can be caught in the upper airways, causing respiratory problems. Particles with a diameter smaller than 2, 5 micro-metres can move to the bronchi in the lungs. Where they are trapped causing asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis or possibly even lung cancer.
Particles are also components of photochemical smog.
Incidence of health problems related to this pollution:
There have been a number of resident's meetings held in which the pollution problems being experienced are discussed. At an awareness meeting held at Eddle's Sports club on the 16th of October 2003, residents expressed their concern regarding the state of air quality governance in the southern suburbs of Pietermartizburg. They also said that there appeared to be an increase in sickness amongst children and the elderly residing in the area. A qualified environmental health officer and resident of Northdale, Nitasha Baijnath, claimed to suffer migraines and respiratory problems since moving to the area. An increase in respiratory illness amongst the general population of the area was confirmed by local general practitioner, Dr Vather. Vather believes that this increase in respiratory ailments is linked to exposure to industrial pollutants.
Industry and the local government's role in the pollution problem:
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It is the duty of factories to control their emissions and the duty of the local government to ensure that factories are doing this. However, because South Africa is a third world country, it is more concerned with development, profits and industry than environmental management. As a result, no action is being taken against heavy pollution resulting from industrial activity in Willowton, despite years of protest from residents.
The Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Act of 1965 is the main law governing air pollution in South Africa. However, this law is outdated and does not comply with international standards of regulating air pollution.
In terms of the act, no person may operate a refinery without a permit and there is a limit to the amount of pollution that an industry is allowed to emit. In theory, violation of this law should result in prosecution of some kind, yet action is seldom taken against violators. This is partly because presently, South African factories do not have to actually measure their emissions, but merely estimate the amount of pollution that they are emitting through their stacks.
As a result, the pollution problem in Willowton is just one of many environmental issues being ignored by government officials in South Africa. On several occasions, complaints from residents were not officially logged, no feedback was given to them, no calls were returned and on one occasion the Chief Environmental Officer of Pietermartizburg refused to log a resident's complaint because according to him, the resident did not live close enough to the factory, despite it being visible from his doorstep.
Mr. Hilton Ryder has assumed the duty of Air Pollution Control in Pietermaritzburg, yet he has failed to penalize or prosecute PG Bison, who exceeded the legal dust limit, or clamp down on Willowton Oil and Cake Mills, who have been illegally operating a boiler for several years.
Recently, a petition consisting of 293 concerned individuals was sent, together with a letter, to the minister of Environmental Affairs regarding the negligence displayed on the part of the municipal government in this matter.
Many residents in the area and in other parts of Pietermaritzburg have made a unanimous decision to put pressure on the local government to enforce stricter, more effective environmental laws and bylaws. This is the only way in which the pollution problem can be solved. The existing act on air pollution is outdated and ineffective.
Industries need to take responsibility for their emissions, but whilst they are seen as the culprits in this problem, delegates have pointed out that the government does not enforce suitable laws to prevent them from polluting the city. Factories should be obligated to install equipment to reduce their pollution emissions and full audits of industries should be performed in which permits, boilers, hazards, etc should be checked. All factories should also have PM10 pollution monitors to measure their dust emissions.
Obtaining information on Willowton Oil and Cake Mill's emissions was difficult, as factories are not willing to release this kind of information. Another constraint is that actual statistics on health problems relating to industrial pollution could not be found, thus the question posed had to be supported by opinions and reported incidences of health problems in the community. Obtaining statistics relating to this task in general was also difficult.
Based on theory research, doctors' opinions and accounts of health problems experienced by many local inhabitants living in close proximity to Willowton Oil and Cake Mills, it can be concluded that by-products of factory activity are harmful to local inhabitants residing nearby and effective measures need to be put into place to reduce or prevent the effects of harmful factory emissions on their health and lifestyles.