Sasol employee 'surprised' he hasn't been killed over claims company is polluting the Vaal
"I'm actually surprised I'm not shot in the head yet."
That is what a Sasol whistleblower said on Wednesday after his testimony at the inquiry of the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) into the Vaal River crisis at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg.
He has been an employee at the company's Sasol Secunda plant in Mpumalanga for about 15 years. He alleged the company was not complying with waste disposal protocols, which is contributing to pollution in the Vaal River.
Sasol spokesperson Alex Anderson on Thursday refuted the allegations that Sasol "intentionally polluted (or continue to pollute)" the Vaal River or any other water source, saying it would be "irresponsible" and "constitute offences and invoke serious criminal and administrative sanctions under the suite of environmental laws we are subject to".
"We are deeply concerned about the current state of the Vaal River, which is essential to residents, business and agriculture," he said.
However, the whistleblower said vanadium, potassium carbonate and diethanolamine were ending up in the Vaal because of open valves.
The chemical sewer is supposed to be enclosed "like a swimming pool" to prevent liquid from going elsewhere so that it can be treated before it is recycled at a landfill or a chemical truck disposes of it, according to protocol.
"Those valves being open means that any and all liquids going to ground is left to go to the oily water sewer unchecked, so it's unmeasured … It can be mega amounts."
He could not say if it was done maliciously, but "it's definitely not a shortage of specialists".
Anderson said there was a dual protection system to contain liquids.
"Even in the event that the lock-out system, which isolates the chemical sewer, were to be unintentionally or inadvertently left open, this sewer is connected to the site’s main oily water sewers, from which water does not flow into the local river system. All the water in these dams are recycled for eventual use (after biological treatment) as process water in our Secunda Operations."
The whistleblower alleged the chemicals increased fish mortality and disturbed the ecology.
"Apparently the people from Embalenhle use it [the river] for fishing, some baptisms, etc. Kids swim in the river, as kids do."
He added: "People downstream who use water from the spruit for irrigation might also experience crop losses."
According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, vanadium can result in coughing lasting a couple of days, nausea, mild diarrhea, and stomach cramps.
Anderson said they use vanadium and potassium carbonate at their operations in Secunda to protect the metal of the equipment and absorb carbon dioxide.
"Due to the potentially harmful impact these chemicals can have on people and the environment, as these chemicals are managed [handled used and disposed of] in accordance with the various requirements governing these hazardous substances."
Anderson said the company was continuously subjected to environmental inspections and compelled to report non-compliances.
The army and others are helping clean up the Sebokeng wastewater treatment plant and sources of sewage pollution of the Vaal River in the Emfuleni district in Gauteng. Raw sewage has been flowing into the river from pump stations in the Emfuleni municipality on the northern bank of the Vaal River‚ posing environmental and health risks.
The Sasol employee first raised the alarm in May 2017 and reported his concerns to higher-ups and the company's ethics committee after which he was allegedly harassed, intimidated and victimised and moved to another unit. He was suspended before returning to work late last year.
"Currently I am not even a secretary. They've pushed me into a corner and basically gave me a colouring book and told [me] to sit there and be quiet."
Sasol said they were not told that the SAHRC's inquiry would continue on Wednesday.
"No representative from Sasol was designated or authorised by Sasol to provide such testimony. We will approach the SAHRC to obtain the testimony in which Sasol, as an interested and affected party was implicated, to study and respond to the SAHRC appropriately."
The SAHRC will accept written submissions until the end of this month before it compiles its report over the next three months and makes it public.