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Is a state-owned company to blame for PFAS contamination at Hartbeespoort Dam? (Part Three)

Hartebeespoort Dam (Photo by Christian Schuit via Flickr)

If Pelchem is producing ‘forever chemicals’, and if some of them are making their way into the effluent that reaches the Crocodile River or the groundwater in the surrounding areas, there is a chance that it is responsible for at least some of the PFAS pollution.

Read Part One and Part Two

As we learnt in Part Two, polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS) enter our water sources in a variety of ways, and they are in multiple water sources in our country. It’s likely that these chemicals are not there from a single point source because the river and dam are so heavily polluted.

Yet the levels of PFAS in the Hartbeespoort Dam were extremely high at the point at which the Crocodile River enters the dam, pointing to this river and its tributaries as a key pathway of pollution.

Which leads me back to Pelchem SOC Ltd.

Pelchem is a subsidiary of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation SOC Ltd (Necsa). According to Necsa’s website, Pelchem is “the sole producer and supplier of fluorochemicals in the Southern Hemisphere… Pelchem has a portfolio of over 14 products exported to more than 25 countries globally.”

[An aside: the Pelchem group includes two further subsidiaries – Limited Electronics South Africa SOC Ltd (LESA) and Ketlaphela SOC Ltd – who you might recently have heard about because they were created in response to the cabinet’s directive for the country to have its own state-owned pharmaceutical company.]

Pelchem’s plant is located upstream from Hartbeespoort Dam, less than 4km from the Crocodile River. According to its annual reports, Necsa has a permit to release 250,000m3 of effluent into the Crocodile River each year but has never reached 100% of this permit, with volumes varying annually. Over the past three years, the volume of effluent released into the river has declined from 80,229m3 in 2017/18 to 59,108m3 in 2019/20.

The annual reports don’t specify what chemicals are in this effluent, though the large proportion is described as “industrial”. Worryingly, the 2020 annual report also notes that Pelchem was only 75% compliant with its licence to operate because the “groundwater contamination of fluorides target was achieved only 50% of the year”.

Necsa’s water licence would specify which chemicals and hazards Necsa and Pelchem were responsible for monitoring in the environment. But even these licences are likely to be limited in their protection of the environment and the people who live in it from PFAS.

“What’s important to understand is that when a licence (for waste or water) is granted, it defines certain things that you as the licence holder must monitor,” says Rico Euripidou, an environmental health campaigner at groundWork. “So, if your licence only narrowly defines what chemicals or by-products of industry you must test for, then that’s all you have to test for. Anything outside of those boundaries is technically ‘legally’ fine, but the result is that many companies pollute the environment with harmful chemicals and by-products that are not defined in their licences because they are not required to test for them.”

Therefore, in the case of PFAS, if our waste and water licences don’t include this family of “forever chemicals” in their scope, efforts to monitor and protect the environment and the people who live there from the family and the variety of uses of these chemicals will remain generally absent. A water and waste licence, then, can sometimes give a company licence to pollute.

Necsa’s water licence wasn’t publicly available, and attempts by Daily Maverick to obtain a copy from the Department of Water and Sanitation were not successful. Necsa’s waste licence, however, specifically states that “the treatment of effluent and wastewater must not impact on a water resource or on any other person’s water use… and must not be detrimental to the health and safety of the public in the vicinity of the activity.”

So, if Pelchem is producing or using PFAS, and if some of those chemicals are making their way into the effluent that reaches the Crocodile River or the groundwater in the surrounding areas, there is a chance that it is responsible for at least some of the PFAS pollution – pollution that is most certainly detrimental to the health and safety of the public. There is also a chance that it would not have to monitor for those chemicals if they are not specified in its water licence.

The thing is, in theory, Pelchem shouldn’t even be using perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) or perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) at all – both of which were found in the dam in Okonkwo’s 2021 study. Using and producing them would put Pelchem in contravention of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

The convention was adopted in 2001 and entered into force in May 2004. South Africa signed on to the convention in 2001 and ratified it in 2002. Article 1 of the convention states that “the objective of this convention is to protect human health and the environment from persistent organic pollutants”.

The preamble to the convention includes some important points. It notes that parties to the convention recognise that “persistent organic pollutants (POPs) possess toxic properties, resist degradation, bioaccumulate, and are transported through air, water and migratory species, across international boundaries and deposited far from their place of release where they accumulate in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems”. It also underlines the importance of manufacturers of POPs “taking responsibility for reducing adverse effects caused by their products and for providing information to users, governments and the public on the hazardous properties of those chemicals”. (my emphasis).

It commits States Parties to prohibit and/or taking legal and administrative measures necessary to eliminate its production and use of all chemicals listed in Annex A of the convention (Annex A specifies chemicals for elimination), and to eliminate import thereof; and to restrict its production and use of the chemicals listed in Annex B (Annex B specifies chemicals for restriction). Parties must take measures to ensure that chemicals listed in Annex A and B are only imported for the purposes of environmentally sound disposal, or for a purpose permitted by Annex A or B.

“The Stockholm Convention regulates only two PFAS groups,” explains Olga Speranskaya, co-director of Health and Environment Justice Support. In May 2009, the convention listed PFOS and perfluorooctane sulfonyl fluoride (PFOSF) for global restriction (Annex B). Exemptions included metal plating in closed-loop systems, and firefighting foam for liquid-fuel vapour suppression and liquid-fuel fires. In 2019, PFOA, its salts and PFOA-related compounds were listed in Annex A of the convention for elimination, stating “the production and use of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), its salts and PFOA-related compounds shall be eliminated except for Parties that have notified the Secretariat of their intention to produce and/or use them in accordance with Article 4 of the Convention”. This includes use in certain products as specified in the annex of the convention.

As Part One of this series showed, PFAS is a family of more than 4,000 highly persistent chemicals.

“They are extremely persistent and can cause long-lasting adverse effects. It looks like only one out of more than 4,000 PFAS chemicals is listed under the convention every 10 years. We may need a century to regulate all PFAS chemicals. In addition, the convention allows specific exemptions for certain applications, which opens the door for industry to continue using already restricted chemicals. Industry is pushing towards substituting one (regulated) PFAS by another non-regulated PFAS, while non-fluorinated alternatives are available,” explains Speranskaya.

This convention, while an important first step, doesn’t adequately protect people from the harm of other PFAS, she argues. “The convention needs to be more preventative towards such chemicals as PFAS and should not continue with taking actions based on a one-by-one chemical approach. The current approach leads to the continued accumulation of PFAS in the environment and the human body, causing irreversible damage for generations to come.”

South Africa published its first National Implementation Plan for the Stockholm Convention in September 2012, and its first report to the convention in 2013.

The 2013 report found that “the chemical industry in South Africa consumes large amounts of PFOS and its related salts” and “PFOS accounted for a total of 93.87%” of all persistent organic pollutants imported into South Africa between 2010 and 2012, and 77.61% of the chemicals exported out of South Africa. “Large quantities of PFOS and related salts were imported mainly from Europe and POP chemical exports from South Africa were mainly to African countries.”

The 2013 report provided figures for the import and export of PFOS and PFOSF from 2010 to 2013, showing marked increases in imports of PFOS. In addition, it suggested a strange occurrence in 2011. In that year, import was “significantly lower than export” and “this unprecedented pattern can only suggest the exportation of a stockpile or that some local production may be taking place”. (my emphasis) This came after the Stockholm Convention listed these chemicals for restriction in 2009.

On the positive side, most of the companies contacted during the government’s survey indicated that fire extinguishers containing PFOS were phased out around 2003. So at least we don’t have to worry about that.

Sadly, in that report, the government didn’t know what PFOS was being used for, or where, or if, it was being made. But it did know that users of products – ordinary people like you reading this article – “may not know that PFOS has been used in the preceding manufacturing process”.

The government also knew that “the use of PFOS in the oil and mining industries has the potential to release into water and the ground at production sites, resulting in contaminated sites”. It flagged landfills and contaminated waste water sludge as necessary sites for investigation. But, at the time of the report, “information on the applications of PFOS to industrial products was not available”.

This is unsurprising given the levels of secrecy in the chemicals industry, says Speranskaya. “In September 2016, the 12th meeting of the Persistent Organic Pollutant Review Committee presented a Consolidated Guidance on alternatives to PFOS and its related chemicals. The guidance admits that many PFOS-related chemicals and mixtures have been claimed as Confidential Business Information (CBI) and thus could not be disclosed,” she says.

The opportunity to claim chemical mixes as CBI means companies will continue to be able to hide their use and production of PFAS and various fluorinated telomers. It also means they never have to accept responsibility for their harmful effects.

Necsa’s 2016/17 annual report indicates that Pelchem’s products include “speciality perfluorocarbons and fluromonomers for diverse markets such as electronics, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, steel finishing and mining”.

One of those products, currently listed on Pelchem’s website in the “Recreational/Sport” category, is Perfluoroalkane Mixture, per-fluorinated C7-C8 liquid. This mixture – a combination of C7F16 and C8F18 – is another long-chain PFAS, the impact of which we just do not know yet. The 2015/16 report also details that Pelchem had developed a new method for initiation of the polymerisation reaction of TFE. You may remember PTFE from Part One of this series, the clever invention of Roy J Plunkett. PTFE is still allowed in terms of the Stockholm Convention for limited purposes that are specified in the annex.

Daily Maverick sent questions to Pelchem this month, asking if it was using or producing PFOA, PFOS or any other PFAS at the plant, and if so, for what purposes. Pelchem was asked whether it was releasing any of these chemicals into the Crocodile River, and if so, what steps it had taken to alert the government and the communities who live in the area to the health risk. Daily Maverick also asked whether, given its own 2020 Annual Report admission of non-compliance with groundwater contamination, Pelchem has been responsible for contaminating the groundwater in the area of its plant, and if so, what steps it has taken to notify the government and the communities in the area, and to decontaminate.

Pelchem’s general manager of corporate communication and stakeholder relations, Nikelwa Tengimfene, did not directly answer my questions on their use of PFAS. Instead, she responded that “Pelchem is a producer of various fluorochemicals based products.”

On the release of PFAS into the river, Tengimfene was similarly evasive. “The liquid waste generated from its plants are categorised, analysed and stored in secure containers, at controlled buildings and collected by a licensed waste management company. Necsa, in turn, conducts regular internal groundwater analysis at upstream and downstream points for monitoring water contamination, for all the liquid waste generated within Pelindaba site.”

And as to whether it had notified the government or the communities in the area of any potential contamination, Tengimfene stated that “an independent analysis is conducted biannually, with the last report of November 2020 concluding that the impact of Necsa operations on the Crocodile River and Moganwe Spruit remains insignificant”.

However, as groundWork’s Euripidou explained earlier, if its licence didn’t say it had to monitor for PFAS, Pelchem could still claim insignificant impact on the rivers, because it wouldn’t legally be required to monitor for PFAS at all.

A follow-up email to Pelchem asked it to respond to my initial questions about PFOA and PFOS and to provide a copy of the biannual independent analysis, and information on where its waste management company takes its waste.

Tengimfene indicated that EnviroServ was their waste company, but that “Necsa is not in a position to share the report as certain parts of it are restricted for distribution”.

EnviroServ confirmed that Pelchem is its client but indicated that it removes hazardous waste from the site and takes it to a hazardous landfill and is not linked to waste that enters the water.

“EnviroServ operates licensed waste facilities to ensure safe and legally compliant disposal of our customers’ waste. According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, waste generators are responsible for all hazardous waste they create from the moment it is generated until disposal. EnviroServ offers our customers peace of mind by collecting, transporting and disposing of waste at our facilities, in line with all prevailing legislation,” said Dean Thompson, EnviroServ Waste Management CEO.

Until quite recently, Pelchem and other potential PFOS users and producers may have been able to get away with producing these harmful chemicals because of our government’s slow movement on implementing the Stockholm Convention. However, thanks to recent regulations on POPs, and a 2019 update to our National Implementation Plan for the Stockholm Convention, their time is running out. DM/MC/OBP

See more in Part Four.

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Absa OBP

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  • This is extremely alarming. Thank you for the explanations which highlight important health risks to people living in the Hartebeespoort area and further downstream. I look forward to further info on this extremely dangerous and uncontrolled release and storage of toxic chemical wastes. Your reporting is extremely valuable to SA citizens.

  • As an occupational medicine physician and having done a lot of work over the years in toxicology this report is extremely alarming. I cannot stress how damaging these chemicals potentially are. The release into a huge water source is a public health emergency. There is growing concern that even minuscule doses of these chemicals can disrupt the endocrine system and cause cancer. By the way don’t cook in Teflon coated pans!

  • I’ve always felt the rampant algae and hyacinth growth has been due to elevated temperature of the water caused by the water cooling of the reactors at NECSA, rather than fertilizers etc. from surrounding farmlands.