Call for legal action

YOLANDE DU PREEZ

The stench emanating from the Oceana fish factory is nothing new to Hout Bay residents but this year there is something different.

Residents say this year, unlike any other, the fumes of hydrogen sulphide that pervade the village from as far as Llandudno to Constantia Nek on some days, is worst than ever and making them physically sick.

They are complaining of nausea, headaches, burning and watering eyes, sinusitis, sore throats as well as mild skin conditions, and now, residents have decided to take action.

In November last year, Oceana announced its intention to remain operational in Hout Bay after the factory had faced closure three months earlier (“Open for business, Sentinel News November 6 2015,”).

In recent years, the factory reduced its production in an attempt to lessen the impact the smell it had on the community but in turn, it was running at a loss.

Since starting production in February this year, the factory has reverted to pre-2012 production levels which means production increased from 60 days a year to between 120 to 180 days a year to make the plant profitable.

However, the community feels it was mislead by promises made by Oceana and so far there is no sight of the R11 million plant upgrade as promised by CEO, Francois Kuttel on November 4.

Although the factory will be installing a new scrubber in months to come, the community has little faith that it will have an impact on the stench.

On photos posted on community Facebook groups, Hout Bay Organised and Hout Bay Complete, smoke can be seen seeping through the roof of the factory and not the chimneys as it should.

Community complaints have been met with silence from Oceana and a mere “no abnormal working conditions were observed and the City is doing its best to monitor and manage the situation,” from the City of Cape Town.

And so Fresh Air for Hout Bay (FAHB), a community interest group dedicated to finding an amicable solution to the air pollution in Hout Bay has decided to appeal to the City of Cape Town for help.

In a seven-page letter addressed to Western Cape Premier, Helen Zille, among others, FAHB founder, Kiara Worth gives a detailed description of the problem at hand and claims it is currently the biggest cause of community tension and division.

She addresses issues such as claims of the City’s refusal to engage with residents, health and socio-economic impacts that are ignored and finding solutions to the problem.

The letter states that the decision to keep the factory open was made solely through discussions between the unions and Oceana and at no point did the City make any effort to acknowledge or consider the concerns raised by the community.

Ms Worth writes: “The City did not issue any public statements, conduct any community meetings, or engage with affected residents to understand concerns.”

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Instead, the City quite successfully washed their hands of the issue completely, denying any involvement or responsibility. As a result, Oceana secured a new five-year lease with the National Department of Public Works and maintained their Atmospheric Emissions License (AEL) with the City. Production began in February 2016 and residents welcomed in the new year under the bombardment of odour pollution, trapped in their homes to escape the debilitating odour, and left feeling completely disenfranchised with the City and their ability to manage the situation.”

She said the community was tired of the copy and paste responses from the City, provincial government and the Air Quality Management department and its lack of effort to measure and record the hydrogen sulphide levels.

She points out that the time taken – one and a half hours – to determine the extent of the odour in Hout Bay, by a City official is not long enough and the reports claiming that the odour was “barely detectable” more than 300m from the plant combined with the infrequency of the monitoring exercises is proof that the problem is not taken seriously by the City.

“FAHB has collected data through our various social media sites and have documented reports of the odour from as far away as Llandudno, Longkloof, Oakhurst, Meadows and Hughenden,” she said.

The following requests were made by FAHB: For the City to establish an odour pollution community complaints mechanism directly with the City and not with Oceana as currently the case; for the City to conduct a comprehensive health study to determine the health and well-being impacts of the short and long-term effects of hydrogen sulphide; to conduct a social and environmental impact assessment of Oceana’s operations to determine the impact of the industry on the broader community; to conduct a socio-economic analysis of the community to determine the needs and opportunities of the local community and the impact the factory has on them; and to conduct an independent investigation with the provincial government to determine the most appropriate activities for the harbour and develop a strategy on how to achieve this.

Ms Worth has requested the City to respond to her letter by the end of April.

She said there has been a lot of discussion about starting a class action suit against Oceana and FAHB has spoken to a reputable environmental law firm to better understand the legal implication of a class action suit and currently FAHB does not have enough of a case to continue with legal proceedings.

“There is no evidence to suggest malpractice on the part of Oceana and it appears they are fully within their legal requirements and meet all the conditions of their Atmospheric Emissions Licence,” she said

However, she explains that this can be changed with the help of the community.

“The community needs to start officially documenting the impacts experienced from the odour pollution by completing official air pollution affidavits and submit medical reports from doctors that show the effect of the pollution on their health,” she said.

Independent and credible atmospheric emissions readings must also be collected and handed to the City.

She said taking legal action needs to be a carefully considered decision and documented proof should be in place for this to happen.

In response to health concerns from the community, Professor Mohamed Jeebhay from the faculty of health sciences at the University of Cape Town and co-author of an article “Hydrogen sulphide gas poisoning abroad a fishing trawler”, published in Occupational Health Southern Africa, confirms that mild exposure to hydrogen sulphide can indeed cause headaches, dizziness, burning eyes and in some cases loss of consciousness.

But according to mayco member of Health Siyabulela Mamkeli, Hout Bay falls within the first category and the odour is in “a nuisance range and does not pose a health hazard.”

Mr Mamkeli confirmed receipt of Ms Worth’s letter and said the City will respond directly to Fresh Air for Hout Bay on the content of the letter.

Oceana spokeswoman Pamela Manda said the Oceana Group will not comment at this stage and referred the Sentinel to its website. The website indicated that the upgrade of the chemical scrubber was part of the R11 million rand invesment into the facility in order to ensure alignment with international best practice and continuous optimisation technology.