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Criminal charges laid against Beyers Naudé municipality after waste site fire’s toxic cloud envelopes Graaff-Reinet

Criminal charges laid against Beyers Naudé municipality after waste site fire’s toxic cloud envelopes Graaff-Reinet
A fire raging at the Graaff-Reinet waste site has been blowing a thick cloud of smoke towards the picturesque town. (Photos: Supplied)

The town of Graaff-Reinet and the access road from the Western Cape, the N9, were enveloped in thick smoke last week after the Dr Beyers Naudé Local Municipality’s badly managed waste transfer site caught fire.

Residents of Graaff-Reinet and motorists on the N9 were faced with a thick cloud of pungent smoke caused by a fire at the Dr Beyers Naudé Local Municipality’s waste transfer site and landfill.

The site, which has failed to deal with a community of people living illegally on it, has been the centre of several tender debacles and closed for a prolonged period and then reopened and closed again. Municipal buildings on the site have been vandalised and there is no management at the landfill. 

The secretary of the Graaff-Reinet Residents and Ratepayers’ Association (GRRPA), Liz Buisman, said the landfill and the waste transfer site had been huge problems. 

“Twice now, local businesses have paid to have the [landfill] site fixed up,” she said. “When I visited during the fire the entrance was blocked with rubbish and people have started dumping their rubbish on the side of the road.”  

Buisman said the crisis started when the municipality closed the landfill and people dumped their rubbish at the waste transfer site.

“When I went there the smoke was so dense I could barely see. There were a lot of fires and they had spread to the veld. You could see men walking around in the fires. The smoke was so dense I had to stop,” she said. 

The ratepayers’ association said in a notice to members that the town looked like a “war zone.”

“Graaff-Reinet looked like a war zone today, with a thick, dark column of smoke billowing up above the Waste Transfer Station and then blown northwards in a toxic cloud several kilometres long, directly over the entire Graaff-Reinet,” the association said.

“Many of you would have witnessed the black ash fallout over the town, as well as the overpowering stench of the burning waste and surrounding vegetation. Upon investigation, it transpired that the burning has been taking place for some time, but got out of hand early this morning — to the extent that the Fire Department could not contain it. 

“Apparently, there is a criminal element involved, purportedly setting alight the mountains of domestic and industrial waste that [are] being dumped at the site.”

The notice claimed the rubbish was set alight on the instructions of the municipality. By the time of publication the municipality had not responded to this claim. 

“The site was not designed for the high volumes of waste currently being dumped there by all and sundry; there was no access control and also no sign of security, or any municipal personnel for that matter when the site was visited several times today by the GRRPA and concerned members of the public. 

“The Waste Management function of [Dr Beyers Naudé Local Municipality] has been in a diabolical shambles for years and, despite numerous promises and undertakings, the situation has not improved,” the notice continued.

Criminal case

A Graaff-Reinet resident and DA MP Samantha Graham-Maré opened a criminal case against the municipal manager.

She said the inability of the municipality to manage its landfills had created a health hazard.

“On Friday, 1 December 2023, I laid charges at the Graaff-Reinet police station under the National Environmental Management: Waste Act, 2008 (Act No. 59 of 2008) because the municipality has failed to fulfil a general duty in respect of waste management.

“The waste transfer station stood closed for a year due to complete mismanagement where the extent of the rubbish became unmanageable and a woman lost her life. Instead of providing a sorting facility to remove the recycling material from wet waste, the station stood empty,” she said.

On 1 November, the municipality issued a notice that its landfill site had been closed and that all refuse must now be dumped at the waste transfer station. The reason given for the closure of the landfill was that no refuse was being dumped at the actual site. Instead, the access road had been used as a dumping site to the extent that it had become impassable. 

Graham-Maré said residents who managed to drive past the mountain of dumped rubbish were met by aggressive people who lived on the landfill site. 

“By the end of October, the access road was completely blocked and the link road between the N9 and Kendrew Road had become the new dump site and had become impassable. Even municipal refuse trucks were dumping on the road.”

She said apart from the tonnes of rubbish at the waste management site being set on fire, there were also almost daily fires at the landfill. 

“Within a month after the announcement that all rubbish must now be dumped at the waste transfer site, it has become a seething mass of rubbish, tip-dwellers and endless spirals of toxic smoke polluting the air.”  

She said they were left with no choice but to pursue criminal charges against the municipality.

“The municipality is obligated not only to fulfil its service delivery mandate in respect of waste management, but also to ensure that it is done in an environmentally sound manner which protects the health of its residents.”  

‘Under control’

The municipality has not yet responded to queries about the fire situation, but on 8 November, Vuyisa Jantjies, the municipal spokesperson, said “all was under control” at the landfill site.

“The municipality is aware of the problems of the deterioration of conditions at the landfill site and has been working on a solution to the problem.

“As you might be aware, the municipality is struggling with yellow plant [earthmoving equipment]. We had to rely on the services of an external service provider to maintain and rehabilitate the landfill site,” Jantjies said.  

“After the procurement of this service from our previous service provider, it became evident that this service provider could not deliver this service as outlined in the service level agreement. The municipality then had to commence a process, as provided for in the agreement to assess and find remedies to the persisting problem. This then resulted in the termination of the contract with the first service provider.”  

Jantjies said the new contractors would “commence services immediately. By Monday, 13 November 2023, the access road into the landfill site and the illegal dumping materials close to the N9 must have been cleared. The service provider will soon thereafter start with the development of cells to ensure proper management of the landfill site.”

He further claimed that the municipality had appointed an official who would monitor activities at the landfill.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: Graaff-Reinet municipal landfill in chaos as officials promise to draft a new plan

“Our Law Enforcement Unit has also been instructed to be vigilant and police the area to discourage further illegal dumping in the areas.”  

Jantjies said the municipality was “pleading with the public to give their cooperation to keep all areas clean. The landfill site has been closed as a temporary matter to ensure the realisation of the clearing and rehabilitation of the site. Businesses and residents are urged to use the transfer station to dump waste, where recyclables will be sorted, and the rest will be disposed of in a designated space.”

However, photographs of the landfill and waste transfer station show that very little of this has happened. DM

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