Wasteman in dock

30 January 2011 - 23:57 By KHETHIWE CHELEMU

A company partly owned by one of the country's most prominent families faces a fine of up to R5-million if it is found guilty of dumping medical waste on a massive scale.

Executives of Wasteman - in which the Oppenheimer family reportedly owned a 30% stake - have been summonsed and will appear in court next week. They are expected to be charged, along with representatives of five Wasteman subsidiaries, with illegally dumping medical waste in Welkom, in the Free State, in 2009.

The company's former CEO, Olivier Meyer, and nine others have already been charged in connection with waste-dumping.

The Oppenheimers - who acquired their shareholding in the company through their private equity investment vehicle, Ernest Oppenheimer & Son, in March last year - are not being charged in their personal capacity.

Wasteman board member Peter Maw told The Times that the Oppenheimers no longer held 30% of the company but were minority shareholders.

Wasteman, the second-biggest waste-management company in South Africa, is a major contractor to 150 hospitals and handles over a million tons of waste a year.

The company made headlines when the Sunday Times reported that it had dumped tons of untreated medical waste in the Welkom area.

According to the charge sheet, Wasteman illegally disposed of 17000t of medical waste - in the form of human tissue, used hypodermic syringe needles, and discarded medicines - in the area between March and November 2009.

Raids by the Green Scorpions unearthed raw medical waste near Maximus Bricks, in Welkom, at another brick works, at the town's show grounds, at a nearby game farm and at an unused gold mine outside the town.

None of the accused has pleaded to the charges, which include illegal dumping of medical waste, corruption and transgressions of the Environmental Management Act.

Summons were issued on January 18 against Wasteman Holdings, Wasteman Group, Wasteman KZN, Wasteman Health Care, and Phambili Wasteman. They are to appear in the Welkom Magistrate's Court to answer to charges relating to events in 2009. All the accused are to appear in the court on February 9.

The state's decision this month to extend the list of those charged to Wasteman and its five subsidiaries was made nine months after the arrests of Meyer - a French national, and his co-accused, in February and April respectively.

On Friday, Meyer, 41, Welkom businessman Gavin Brasher, 45, Neil Meiring, 35, William Knoesen, 54, Johannes le Roux, 60, Andries Nel, 60, and farmers Joubrie Knoesen, 36, and Jouge Knoesen, 31, briefly appeared in court.

Millionaire Andre Swanepoel, 64 - a Wasteman board member and general manager of its medical division - and Daniel Krijnauw, former Wasteman operations manager in the medical division, failed to appear, but their arrest warrants were held over until next week.

Krijnauw allegedly fled the country in October and is believed to be in New Zealand. He has missed three of his court appearances.

If convicted, Wasteman and the other accused face stiff penalties ranging from fines of R200000 to R5-million, or 10 years in jail.

On Friday, prosecutor Michael Shivuri told the court that Wasteman had been unsuccessful in its written representations to the Free State director of public prosecutions in which it asked that the company not be charged.

Shivuri said the state intended adding more names to the charge sheet soon.

Shivuri handed in a letter from Krijnauw's lawyers, assuring the court that Krijnauw would travel from New Zealand to attend the hearing next week.

Meyer's attorney, James Ndebele, said he had no objection to the inclusion of Wasteman and its subsidiaries in the case.

He brought an application to have Meyer's bail conditions relaxed, to allow him to apply for a replacement for a stolen passport.

Magistrate Tony Brown allowed Meyer to apply for the passport but ordered that he hand it over to investigators as soon as it was issued.

Maw yesterday said the company would abide by its obligations.

"The company has cleaned up the sites of the illegal dumping in Welkom," he said.

Maw said the company viewed the allegations against it in a serious light but was "trying to move forward as a company as this happened some time back".

"The directors of Wasteman have acted professionally, incisively and comprehensively to remedy the failings established in their internal investigations," he said.