These cases, showing some of the damage done by Sasol and the resistance to it, will take us through different regions of South Africa.
The Vaal River is the third-largest river in South Africa and is the main source of water for the Witswatersrand area. The Vaal River is also the largest tributary of the Orange River, the second-largest river. Despite its important role, the river has been plagued by multiple forms of pollution for decades, devastating nearby communities, and wildlife [8, 7]. The pH levels in the river water can reach below 1 (as acid as lemon juice), and some residents of surrounding informal settlements say that birds fall dead from the sky when they fly over the area. Locals suffer from respiratory and cardiac illnesses because of the government’s controversial non-enforcement of minimum emission standards for Eskom and Sasol . A lot of the water pollution also comes from acid mine waste tailings owing to the Department of Mineral Resources continuously granting new mining licenses without making sure existing shafts are properly closed . More information about the acid mine drainage can be found at https://www.ejatlas.org/conflict/acid-mine-drainage-south-africa.
Sewage also flows freely from poorly managed drains, and poor water treatment infrastructure has contributed to the contamination of water in the river. Locals have complained about sewage flowing into their streets and homes, and of foul smells in the air . Scientists have traced elevated carbon and sulfur dioxide emissions as well as heavy metals in the soil and acidic water to 22 collieries and 13 coal-fired power stations (including the newest, Eskom-owned Kusile, more information at https://ejatlas.org/conflict/kusile-coal-fired-power-station-protest), a siting disparity considering that the entire nation has 17 total . Sasol has been particularly targeted with claims that they are responsible for polluting the Vaal river despite staunch denial. The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) charged that Sasol does not comply with regulations on discharging waste and has previously had three of its waste facilities shut down after failing to comply. However, the City of Ekurhuleni and the Emfuleni Local Municipality have defended Sasol, arguing that not only are all companies discharging waste into the Vaal River complying to regulations, but there are also 224 other companies doing the same . Sasol has allegedly failed to maintain its infrastructure but accuses the facility inadequacy on community members’ sabotage through theft and vandalism .
Sasol has a history of high emissions of toxic pollutants also in Sasolburg, Free State, and Secunda, Mpumalanga, and it is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in South Africa after the coal-burning electricity company Eskom. Moving then now across the country from Witswatersrand to the east, we notice that anonymous whistleblowers from Sasol’s Secunda plant in Mpumalanga, counterargue that Sasol intentionally pollutes rivers by pumping banned types of wastes and hazardous chemicals into the water. Illicit activities were rampant, and any employees raising alarms were harassed, threatened, abused, suspended, and demoted in retaliation [2, 6]. Exposure to vanadium may affect the central nervous system, with symptoms including headaches, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, birth defects, and turning the tongue green. Another chemical the Sasol unlawfully discharges is potassium carbonate, which can cause severe irritation of the gastrointestinal tract and result in nausea, vomiting, and burns. As one of the whistleblowers reported, "The intimidation is worsening despite the fact that I have followed proper procedures to report the irregularities to relevant authorities, I am just surprised that I am not shot in the head yet” .
The company-dominated city of Sasolburg also suffers greatly from toxic emissions. Sasolburg is in the northern Free State province, south of Johannesburg. Established in 1954, it was built by Sasol Ltd. (the former South African Coal, Oil, and Gas Corporation Ltd.) to house employees at the world’s first oil-from-coal plant producing commercial quantities of oil. This Sasol 1 oil refinery, a coal-to-liquid facility using technology from the 1940s, releases the highest concentration of volatile organic compounds in South Africa. Many kilometers away some people are alleged to have asthma, respiratory illnesses, heart attacks, strokes, blood complications, cancers, and other illnesses triggered by Sasol’s pollution and are alleged to be dying at rates of about 20,000 people per year . For the past 15 years, a growing group of South African activists has been a driving force behind efforts to curb pollution and fight the impunity of the polluting industries.
Coming back to the Vaal River, Caroline Npaotane is a leader in this movement . She began her activism in response to her daughter suffering frequent nosebleeds and breathing issues from air pollution. As she explains, despite much personal risk, ridicule, and harassment for her activism, "You're not a doctor or a scientist. But you don't need to be a doctor or scientist to know when you know your kids are suffering” . Since then, she and the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance have helped educate and mobilize communities throughout the Vaal Triangle to monitor pollution levels and demand that attention be paid to the health problems created by the toxic environmental conditions. Their advocacy led to passing a new law regulating air quality standards, giving Sasol and Eskom until 2015 to curb emissions. However, Sasol sued the government for exemption from the law . On November 20, 2018, members of groundWork, Just Share, the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, the Centre for Environmental Rights, South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, Justiça Ambiental, and other supporters picketed and made a human chain at the Sandton Convention Centre in the richest quarter of Johannesburg against Sasol’s pollution and its effects on vulnerable, majority communities [3, 11, 12]. Tracey Davies of JustShare stated that communities wanted the company to come up with tangible solutions to reduce its emissions to acceptable standards. She alleged that Sasol’s Secunda facility was one of the world’s single largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, she added that communities wanted the company to account for the reduction of its financial provision for rehabilitation by R1.4billion this year, which the company said was due to “macroeconomic” changes . “Sasol still benefits from state subsidies. It’s involved in industry lobbying against the carbon tax, even though the tax is one of the weakest in the world. The climate-related risks posed by, and to, Sasol, should be a top priority for the company’s shareholders," says Davies .
Representatives responding to demands and questions, however, gave vague, non-committal answers about Sasol's pollution and employee fatalities in the different locations.