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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Bucket Brigade

Air Date: Week of October 12, 2001

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Durban, South Africa residents have been suffering from high rates of asthma and cancer. Trained by American environmental activists, local residents have learned to test the air quality using inexpensive technology made of plastic buckets. Danielle Knight reports on a community that is trying to pressure the government and corporations to clean up the environment.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A heavy industrial complex in the coastal city of Durban, South Africa is the economic envy of its neighbors. The factories and refineries there mean jobs and incomes for many, but for some residents this boom comes at a price. They say air pollution from those smoke stacks and refinery towers is making them sick with cancer, asthma and other illnesses. Danielle Knight reports.

KNIGHT: A small garage sits on a South Durban street overlooking a massive industrial complex, the size of several football fields. Dozens of flares and smokestacks tower over huge storage tanks and factories. Mechanic Herb Badstubner is fixing an old beat-up Volkswagen. When he is not working on cars, he worries about air quality. Badstubner is part of an environmental watchdog group known as the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance. The organization keeps track of chemical spills and gas leaks and lobbies the government and industry. Last year, with help from Communities for a Better Environment, an advocacy group in California, Badstubner and others here learned how to take their own air quality samples using an ordinary plastic bucket.

BADSTUBNER: We have here a bucket, very simple bucket, of plastic, with an airtight lid, and attached is a plastic packet, under a valve, which is open to the atmosphere.

KNIGHT: Badstubner is demonstrating how to take an air quality sample. Inside the bucket is an air sampling bag. A small vacuum sucks the air out of the bucket.

BADSTUBNER: And as you create a vacuum inside the bucket, which you do for three minutes, you switch the vacuum off and open the valve which – can you hear it? – the air was sucked into the bag now, as you open that, through that vacuum inside the bucket. Very straightforward. Very simple.

KNIGHT: Badstubner and his group call themselves the Bucket Brigade. They take samples periodically, whenever they notice a strange smell or emission. The bags are then sent to a laboratory overseas, for analysis. So far, the test results seem to confirm the community's fears. Some of the samples, taken near the oil refineries, revealed high levels of benzene, a chemical classified as a known carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Levels of benzene were up to 15 times higher than World Health Organization guidelines.

South Durban is home to several crude oil refineries, including one of the largest in Southern Africa. The area also hosts the city's airport and 150 factories, including many chemical plants and a pulp and paper mill.

PEEK: We have fiber plants, chemical plants, chemical hazardous storage facilities in communities.

KNIGHT: Bobby Peek is one of South Africa's most prominent environmental activists, and founder of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance. He grew up in South Durban, and became involved with environmental issues because he believed that pollution was to blame for the seeming abundance of illnesses in his community.

PEEK: My mother died of cancer, my uncle died of cancer, my niece died of cancer, three of my rugby buddies died of cancer.

KNIGHT: Peek says that industry is taking advantage of South Africa's lack of legally-binding pollution standards. Because South Durban is mostly made up of poor, black, Indian and mixed race communities, many residents view the location of industry in these residential areas as a lingering legacy of racism by the previous apartheid government.

PEEK: We have pipelines that run a few meters from our houses, pipelines that carry crude oil, gas, and various other types of fuels that have leaked in the past. We have toxic landfill sites in the area – six, seven to be exact – and these are all within black neighborhoods in South Durban.

KNIGHT: No formal studies have been done on the impact of pollution in South Durban, but this past year workers and residents, including hundreds of school children, were hospitalized because of several toxic gas leaks from chemical facilities. An investigative report last year by Durban's main daily newspaper, the Mercury, concluded that the rate of leukemia in the area may be up to 24 times higher than in other parts of South Africa. Two years ago, the city government released an environmental assessment of South Durban that concluded that certain residents living close to industrial operations should be relocated. But Peek says relocation is not the answer.

PEEK: In the past there was an apartheid government that created this nightmare, and the only way the present government is going to deal with this nightmare is not relocating people out of the area, but is actually cleaning up the industry. And if there has to be a partnership in this new South Africa, it has to be a partnership around sustainable development where community groupings living next to industrial areas go into strong partnerships with government and industry to clean up the industry.

KNIGHT: In order to make their case that pollution is jeopardizing public health, environmental activities are calling on the city's health department to conduct an overall health assessment. Neil Larrat is acting chief environmental health officer for the city government. He says part of the problem with pollution in South Durban reflects a nationwide dilemma. Even though the country's new constitution ensures the right to live in a clean and healthy environment, there are no legally-binding air pollution regulations in the country.

LARRAT: Currently, South Africa doesn't have any national standards. We do have guidelines. These are particularly problematic in that they haven't been revisited for many years and when compared to international guidelines clearly are lacking.

KNIGHT: South Africa also lacks any kind of enforcement body like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and relies on self regulation by industry. To deal with this challenge, the new South African government has set up a multi-agency committee that is advising legislators on the development of national environmental standards.

Richard Parks is the managing director of Sapref, a South Durban petroleum refinery jointly owned by Shell Oil and British Petroleum. Parks admits that refineries emit pollution, but he bristles at the accusation that Sapref is taking advantage of South Africa's lack of legally binding environmental standards. He says his company is working to minimize pollution.

PARKS: We feel that, if you compare our impact with refineries around the world, in many respects we're better than many refineries. So we reject the more extreme accusations that suggest that we don't care about the environment and that we're sort of polluting the environmental willy-nilly and without regard for the impact on people in this area.

KNIGHT: Parks points to Sapref's recent $40 million investment in a new sulfur recovery and gas treating unit. This new technology aims to deal with the high amounts of sulfur dioxide emitted by the refinery. But, in the absence of national pollution regulations and an enforcement agency to make sure industry is complying with these rules, there is no way for the residents of South Durban to know what they are breathing every day.

[GARAGE NOISES]

KNIGHT: Back at the garage, Herb Badstubner is optimistic that residents can make a difference. He says the bucket testing devices remain an important tool for the community to find out if industry is actually reducing pollution levels.

BADSTUBNER: We are very happy, because the information we got back from overseas gave us, really, something positive in our struggles to bring a better environment and a better health to the people in the Durban South.

KNIGHT: Badstubner says he hopes the vigilance of the Bucket Brigade will eventually force industry to stop polluting. For Living on Earth, I'm Danielle Knight, in Durban, South Africa.

 

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