Our Burning Planet

TOXIC WASTE COMPLAINT

Sasol whistle-blower ‘has to look over [his] shoulder every day’

Emissions rise from towers of the Sasol Secunda coal-to-liquids plant in Mpumalanga. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

When addressing the Sasol annual shareholders’ meeting on Friday, 19 November, CEO Fleetwood Grobler repeated reassurances to his digital audience about the company’s ‘robust’ processes for dealing with whistle-blowers. His comments were in response to questions from a persistent private shareholder who just happens to be a whistle-blower.

Ian Erasmus blew the whistle on Sasol’s release of vanadium, a hazardous heavy metal waste, into the Vaal River System several years ago, but even today he still has to “look over my shoulder”.

“That guy – the one who suspended me on 27th May 2019 for testifying at SAHRC – stopped next to my car in a public road and yelled at me in September 2021. I informed Sasol of this in that email to [Sasol CEO] Fleetwood [Grobler] the week before their AGM… so yes I have to look over my shoulder every day.” 

Erasmus says he has been harassed for almost five years by former Sasol superiors in the small Mpumalanga town of Secunda, home to the refinery where he once worked. This ever since he reported a serious “event” — the release of vanadium, a hazardous heavy metal waste that Erasmus  has ended up in the Vaal river system. His experience was reported in the Mail & Guardian nine months ago.

Guns and hazardous waste

Erasmus says he is scared of his former superior, a senior section manager at Sasol Secunda since 2008, whose name is known to Daily Maverick.

“He is unstable, unpredictable and a gun owner, who knows where I live.”

Erasmus said this manager was the one to whom he reported that vanadium, instead of being disposed of according to the company’s strict disposal procedure, was draining via a broken valve from the Sasol refinery into the plant’s process water, which he knew could end up in the Vaal River via the Kleinspruit River. Which is against the law.

Vanadium exposure is thought to cause genetic defects, damage to organs through prolonged and repeated exposure, and is toxic to aquatic life. 

Erasmus said this broken valve, which he first noted and reported in 2012, could have been allowing this process for six years.

The father of two said that although he followed the correct channels, such as reporting to the Sasol Ethics Department, he was shocked when his concerns were dismissed. A staffer with 17 years experience, he said Sasol’s Human Resources Department laughed him off. 

Process and procedure be damned 

He said a Sasol human resources manager told him to “not use the internal grievance procedure and [rather] pray to God”. Erasmus’s recording of that meeting (with two managers), which Daily Maverick has heard, reveals the other manager as saying, “policies and procedures becomes a grey world when it comes to people”. 

“I mean, if HR does not help employees in need,” says Erasmus, “what are they doing there? I’ll tell you: they are there to quash employee noise.”

Daily Maverick’s questions about the managers’ specific comments were put to Grobler and the managers concerned via Sasol spokesperson Matebello Motloung.

Motloung replied: “As indicated to you in my email response to your queries, it is Sasol Group Media Relations’ responsibility and mandate to handle and respond to all queries from journalists and other media representatives. This is irrespective of whether or not they were sent to us directly or to Sasol employees.”

Having served 17 years with Sasol, it seems from multiple email communications with superiors that Erasmus was almost a model employee. Among his contributions were designing a form with which employees could make “betterment” suggestions, and working to improve the company’s performance.

Nevertheless, in the November AGM, when fielding the awkward questions asked of Grobler about whistle-blowing and the faulty valve — that all shareholders could hear — Motlaung painted Erasmus as a troublesome employee, “impeding an effective workplace”.

Sod the safety 

Far from effective, Erasmus says, Sasol’s attitude to safety was “abysmal”.  

He referred to fire water-spray protection systems that had blocked nozzles for weeks in early 2018, the result of which was that “the drum” — a steel vessel up to the size of a bus, usually pressurised, and filled with a petro-chemical — would have no fire protection. 

He said the refining mechanical foreman apparently said the budget did not allow for pipe replacement “at that moment”. 

Despite weekly inspection checklists, he said, “filled in and signed by foremen”, the plant’s emergency fire-fighting equipment frequently contained “broken hoses and missing equipment” at the Benfield unit where he worked.

Yet, he claims, “Each time I raised the alarm, I was suspended.” 

Cutting corners and a culture of fear 

Erasmus says he believes management was cutting financial corners in not acting on his reporting of the “incorrect” disposal of hazardous waste which ultimately left the plant and found its way into the spruit and farmland outside. This was in the period 2012 to 2019. The valves he noted were replaced two weeks after he testified about the waste before the Human Rights Commission.

He claims management did not want Sasol shareholders to know about the problems, hence the attempts to shut him up.  

He said his manager accused him of “phoning the Sasol Environment people and reported illegal chemical dumping that was taking place on the plant. He then told me, ‘My p**s is dik’ [Afrikaans for being furious].” 

When environmental investigators came to the plant four hours later I was not included in their investigation.

Sasol’s Motloung says Erasmus refused to participatein this [investigative] process.”

“Lies”, says Erasmus. “They never included me in any investigation they may have done in the non-compliant disposal after I testified at the SAHRC. They made a weak attempt in April 2021, but I was scared that it was just a tactic, as they stated that my cooperation was voluntary. That did not instil a lot of confidence in me as a whistleblower”. 

Intimidation continued

Speaking to Daily Maverick recently, he detailed an incident on 11 May 2017, at around 9am, where his manager demanded that he switch his phone off. 

He mouthed the words, ‘Jy spyker my’ [You’re screwing me]. He became increasingly aggressive”, he says, recounting an incident where the manager confronted him at his workplace. 

“I stood up from my chair and as I had passed him he pushed me with his stomach while scowling at me, in the same manner one would challenge another man to fight.” 

He says the manager returned to his workplace shortly afterwards to confront him, during this engagement showing him “a middle finger which he rubbed against his forehead” and “stuck out his tongue while making pumping/thrusting motions with his hips”. 

Erasmus details a few events where complainants have felt compelled to keep quiet for fear of the consequences. “There’s a long list; unsafe situations, illegal overtime, hazardous waste concerns…I’m the only guy who had the guts to take it this far”. 

Toxic water in the farm dam

While Erasmus says he cannot prove these allegations, he discovered that he wasn’t the only person battling Sasol about their disposal of toxic water. 

Not far from Erasmus’s workplace, and not long after his battle with his superiors had started, a 2016 article in City Press revealed that a company named Templemore, was involved in a legal battle with Sasol, claiming that ongoing leakages from the company’s dams were poisoning water and cattle on his land.

sasol erasmus vanadium river
The Sasol One Site in Sasolburg. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

City Press reported that laboratory tests of water and soil samples collected from the farm showed “elevated levels” of a wide range of metals, including mercury, copper, manganese, vanadium and lead.

“In court papers, Templemore claims that ‘the level of harmful and poisonous substances… has steadily increased with the passing of time’, turning the small cattle dam ‘from a blue colour to having a pink tinge with serious and toxic crystallisation occurring at the edges of the dam’.” 

It emerged that Sasol had in 2014 been “forced to release contaminated water into the water system that runs along Templemore’s western boundary and into the local Kleinspruit River”. 

Instead of informing landowner Templemore and its tenant farmer — who lost half of his herd of cattle, allegedly due to the contaminated water — of the new and sudden flow of toxic water seeping through their land, Sasol seemingly kept the leak in-house.

As City Press reported, “It was only then that Sasol admitted that, six months earlier, in December 2013, a crack had developed in one of the pollution dams, resulting in the release of contaminated water.” 

What could have been passed off as a serious mistake might be seen as simple deception. 

Another interpretation could be that instead of accepting its evident fault in not disclosing the leak, and making right with the farmer and his tenant, Sasol had seemingly opted to attack by litigation instead.

That matter was seemingly settled out of court, with Erasmus saying he had heard rumours that the Templemores had since “bought a game farm”.

A love of litigation 

Sasol appears to exhibit a preference for litigation when it comes to disagreements, with Motlaung referring more than once at last month’s AGM to the company’s invitation to Erasmus to cooperate, not with a mediator or reputable environmental NGO, as would have been appropriate, but with its lawyers. 

So it seems ironic that an internal probe conducted for Sasol in 2013 by Werksmans Attorneys revealed damning findings.

The law firm referred to issues with transparency, conflicts of interest and “potentially gross negligence”. It found “attempts at withholding information from business units and from the Sasol board and that there are attempts to make the picture… look better than it actually is”.

That story came a month after a Financial Mail cover story on “complex corporate culture” quoted Grobler as saying, “If they [employees] ever experienced that their voice didn’t count — that [is] now gone.”

Not in Ian Erasmus’s books. 

Fast-forward to Sasol’s AGM on 19 November 2021, and to some it is clear that Sasol’s “robust” processes for dealing with whistle-blowers mentioned by Grobler have worked. 

Just not the way 42-year-old Erasmus would have hoped.

He says he doesn’t want money. He just wants his life back. DM/OBP

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Absa OBP

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  • Sasol has a reputation for being a bully. At the privately owned, working capital financing business where I worked prior to my retirement in 2020, we had an engineering client who regularly handled the annual maintenance shut down for them, making use of another labour broking client of ours to supply the workforce. A dispute was declared by our client over delays in the provision of materials which Sasol were contractually required to provide. Eventually an amount of more than R120 mil was owed by Sasol, excluding interest on the outstanding balance. Fortunately for our clients, their outstanding creditors were kept informed of developments and assisted them by continuing to provide good and services while accepting extended terms on the long overdue amounts outstanding to them. The saga continued for years and eventually went to arbitration, which itself dragged on for a long time. The owner of the engineering firm, who was the firm’s key witness, passed away in 2018 or 2019 and Sasol took full advantage of the situation to bully them into accepting a disgustingly low amount of around R60 mil as a settlement.
    Prior to the owners passing, he learnt, while attending consultations with his legal counsel, that Sasol were also in meetings at the same offices where they were in negotiations regarding action being taken against them by another of those attorneys’ clients. He was told that Sasol employ a policy of dragging out these matters deliberately to impoverish opponents!!