11 September 2013

There is hope for a cleaner environment in the Vaal community

On 10 September 2013 the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) with the assistance of Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) and groundWork won a land mark case using the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 (PAIA) against giant steel producer ArcelorMittal.

The case was heard on 3 June 2013 by the South Gauteng High Court ruling that records of ArcelorMittal South Africa's (AMSA) Environmental Master Plan and the Vaal Disposal Site be handed over to VEJA.

Following earlier training by SAHA on PAIA, VEJA approached CER, one of SAHA's PAIA Civil Society Network (CSN) counterpart which is an environmentalist information specialist NGO. With CER's assistance, VEJA made a PAIA request on 11 December 2011 for a copy of AMSA's 2002 Environmental Master Plan for the rehabilitation of its Vanderbijlpark site. Again in February 2012 another request was submitted for records relating to the closure and rehabilitation of the company's Vaal Disposal Site after the company had disposed of hazardous waste in Vereeniging.

According to a statement issued by CER, VEJA and groundWork, both of these requests were made on the premise that "it is in the public interest and more specifically in the interest of the Vaal community to know what impact AMSA is causing to the environment and to people's health."

With both VEJA and CER aware of the importance of transparency in the fragile environmental sector, they used the only legislated tool available, PAIA, to access records that could assist keep the Vaal environment clean for future generations to enjoy. Unfortunately the initial request did not result in AMSA releasing requested records. This left the members of the PAIA Civil Society Network with no option but to approach the courts for remedy.
Approaching the courts unfortunately is often a long, tedious, and sometimes expensive process. In this case the court case has been ongoing for over a year.

According to Caroline Ntaopane, Project Coordinator at VEJA, the judgment ordering AMSA to release records to VEJA means that "communities that have been affected by AMSA and struggling with health issues can finally better understand the extent of the company's impact and how they can begin to hold it more accountable."

In relation to private bodies the judgment has far reaching consequences for the application of PAIA to private bodies. The court has applied a lower threshold for determining whether a right that is being protected and or exercised, than many other private bodies have been applying to date.

Furthermore, in his judgment, Acting Judge Carstensen, cited section 24 of PAIA being key to enforcing the right of applicants to band together and seek information "to enable it to assess the various activities on the environment" ensuring the monitoring, protection and exercising a watch-dog role "in the preservation and rehabilitation of our natural resources."
Through this ruling the environmental justice and governance in South Africa confirms the right of communities to have access to records of corporate polluters, so that they can be in a stronger position to protect their constitutional rights to a safe and healthy environment.

In order to do exercise this right Carstensen AJ has provided useful precedent and support for PAIA when stating that "it is important that records are given swiftly, inexpensively and effortlessly as soon as reasonably possible."