By Anna Majavu
The Makana Residents’ Association (MRA) has called on residents of Makhanda to report toxic smoke from a giant five-day municipal dumpsite fire to the Centre for Environmental Rights. Anna-Maré Herselman, MRA membership officer, said the MRA wanted all affected residents to report the environmental violation to the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) and send the MRA a copy of their reference number.
The Cape Town-based CER maintains a national log of environmental violations that it submits to government departments. “Section 24 of the constitution provides that everyone has a right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing. However, the lives and livelihoods of many people and communities are put at risk by those who destroy our natural resources, harm our health, and compromise the ecological integrity of our environment,” the CER says.
The fire started on 26 August, with many residents reporting headaches and tight chests from the intense smell of burning plastic. The following day, when residents asked why the fire had not been put out, a Mr Welkom from the municipality sent a message to community WhatsApp groups saying “yes, it is the dumpsite. It is a large area that is burning. It’s going to take a lot of water as it’s deep-seated”.
Management of the dumpsite was outsourced to Mphele Engineers and Project Management in a R20 million contract in 2021, following a High Court judgment in which Makana Municipality was found to have neglected the dumpsite and breached environmental laws. Mphele Engineers and Project Management also manages the landfill sites in Port Alfred. By 29 August, they said that they had discovered the fire on 26 August at 11:38am and acted immediately to put the fire out.
“An internal investigation was lodged; it has been established that an unidentified group of people had set
alight both the commercial and garden refuge cells. A case of arson” said Mphele Engineers and Project Management, Christopher Els.
It is not clear how the arsonists gained entry to the landfill site as part of Mphele’s contract included setting up a fence around the perimeter and securing access to the site.
Els added that landfill fires were “extremely daunting” to fight because of the presence of methane gas in compacted garbage. “Our fire fighting units and waste processing team are working around the clock to ensure that this matter is resolved as soon as possible. Mphele Engineers have incorporated additional fire preventative measures and additional staff to prevent any fires that might occur in the future” said Els.
However, by 30 August, residents reported that plumes of smoke were still billowing from the dumpsite. By 31 August, residents reported waking up with tight chests and sinus problems, with the chemical smell of burning plastic still lingering strongly in the air.