There’s a ‘total disregard’ for our rights — residents near Rustenburg food plant battle to live with nauseating odour
Residents living near the RCL Foods plant in Rustenburg say their environmental rights have been violated by the food manufacturer that has been operating in the area for decades.
“It smells like a pot of burning shit and rotting chicken,” say residents of Zinniaville of the RCL Foods factory and biogas plant that’s a few kilometres from their homes, and had its application for an atmospheric emission licence (AEL) rejected recently after operating without one for about three years.
An AEL legally regulates the emissions released by a plant and ensures particular standards are met that do not pollute the environment and harm people’s health.
Residents living near the RCL Foods plant say their environmental rights have been violated by the food manufacturer that has been operating in the area for decades.
Rustenburg, nestled at the foot of the Magaliesberg mountain range in North West province, is home to about 550,000 people, mostly of working age, with almost a third of the population unemployed, and youth unemployment at about 35%, according to Statistics South Africa.
Although the city is situated at the foot of a mountain range, Zinniaville is near two large platinum mines — a dusty, middle-class suburb surrounded by townships and informal settlements.
The RCL Foods plant is situated on the boundaries of a mix of residential areas — Zinniaville, Tlhabane, Karlien Park and Seraleng. The company has been operating in the area for more than 40 years and its proximity to the residential areas is a consequence of apartheid spatial planning.
Residents in the area have long struggled with odours from the Rainbow Chicken processing plant — a subsidiary of RCL Foods. But in recent years, the waste-to-value plant, which uses effluents and poultry manure to generate biogas, has added to the nauseating odour.
The plant releases hydrogen sulphide, though the company says it has installed scrubbers to limit the odour.
Commissioned in 2020, the plant was an effort by RCL to become more energy self-reliant and was authorised through a 2017 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), Cassie Maree of Green Create told Daily Maverick. It is unclear why the company never applied for an AEL at the same time as the EIA, as the two are usually applied for together. Green Create is a 50% holder in Matzonox, RCL’s waste-to-value operation that the manufacturer acquired in 2018.
“The biodigester facility was originally designed according to the best-practice measures that were authorised during the original EIA process, as contained in the conditions of their 2017 IEA. However, it was found after plant commissioning in September 2020, that certain aspects of the plant seemed to be causing odorous emissions,” said Maree.
‘Smell has got worse’
Maree said investigations and solutions to address the odour had been conducted and initiated. However, residents say the smell has got worse since RCL’s AEL was rejected at the beginning of March. The food manufacturer only applied for the licence two years after it started operating.
“How was it commissioned to start without an AEL?” asked Zinniaville resident Adil Bulbulia. “The stink is so bad. We keep our doors closed; we don’t have fresh air because the smell is so disgusting.
“We understand that they are employing a lot of people. We don’t want people to lose their jobs … but at the same time, you’re employing people to their own detriment. We don’t want the plant to close completely; they have the money to move their plant. But they won’t do it, because why must they spend? The plant has been running as it has for so many years.”
Daily Maverick visited the town and drove about five minutes from Bulbulia’s home to RCL’s plant. The smell this reporter experienced outside the facility caused nausea and lightheadedness.
Farzana Suliman, Zinniaville Secondary School’s principal, said there was no escape from the smell, inside or outside.
“Then you go to school and are faced with a school of 1,500 children,” said Suliman. “Rustenburg is hot as hell … you are inside the classroom, teaching, and the smell hits you. So kids are affected inside the classroom. How do they concentrate when they are busy blocking their nose?”
The principal added that the smell had worsened over the past six years. Suliman said that teachers were sometimes absent from school because of ill health caused by the plant’s emissions.
Residents have experienced no sign of the smell lessening, and the recent rejection of the biodigester by the Bojanala Platinum District Municipality (BPDM) confirms this. The municipality, in its refusal, said, “Matzonox (Pty) Ltd must not operate any listed activity; Bojanala Platinum District Municipality has refuses [sic] the application for operation.”
Luan Snyders, Rustenburg local municipality councillor, said: “Ninety percent of the community members affected by the odour from the plant have objected against the plant in a public meeting. I myself made submissions that if the odour is not mitigated in line with the Air Quality Act the plant cannot operate near the residential areas of thousands of residents.”
Despite this notice, the smell continues to pervade a number of areas in Rustenburg.
Letlhogonolo Mamabolo (30), a youth activist in Tlhabane, told Daily Maverick, “That stench has been there all my life. We grew up with that smell. It comes maybe twice or three times a week.”
Dr Fatima Saloojee, a general practitioner in Rustenburg’s central business district, told Daily Maverick that there were many health complaints from residents living near the plant after a day of intense malodour.
Saloojee said she often gets calls from mothers whose children have asthma. Alongside cases of nausea and vomiting — which pregnant women in the first trimester especially struggle with — sinus issues are also prevalent in the community.
“The odour itself causes a stress-related physiological response, and that response affects your immunity. So your immunity is impaired in the way that you fight off infection … which is why we are seeing more cases of bacterial sinusitis; because our cellular immunity is being impaired,” said Saloojee.
“Beyond nausea, loss of appetite, and non-specific symptoms, there’s mental health. It’s disgusting to live with a smell like that. People get irritated and research shows there’s a definite correlation between malodour and a stress-related response, which can cause anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, mood disorders; all of which I am seeing in my community.
“It is our human rights that are being violated. We cannot accept it. It has gone on for so long and it’s unfair that we have to live like that … So to me, there’s a total disregard for us; a total disregard for our quality of life. It’s unfair that we have to live like that.”
It is unclear why the plant continues to operate despite the Bojanala Platinum District Municipality rejecting RCL’s AEL application. DM/OBP