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Activists up in arms at reports of ship dumping toxic waste off West Coast near St Helena Bay

A track hoe excavates the residue of NS Qingdao's reactive cargo. Picture: SAMSA/Holling

A track hoe excavates the residue of NS Qingdao's reactive cargo. Picture: SAMSA/Holling

Published Jan 18, 2022

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Cape Town - Environmentalists are up in arms at a report from the SA Maritime Authority (Samsa) that about 1 500 tonnes of chemicals, from the NS Qingdao bulk carrier, are being dumped into the sea, about 250km off St Helena Bay, in an operation expected to end in March.

The vessel, which arrived in South African waters last year, from South Korea, is a bulk carrier that was built in 2011, and is sailing under the flag of the Marshall Islands. It was anchored at St Helena Bay, after it was evacuated from the Port of Durban in October, after her cargo caused a chemical reaction and released toxic fumes into the atmosphere.

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Extinction rebellion spokesperson Michael Wolf said: “Dumping toxic chemicals into the ocean will have dire consequences for people in the immediate area, but also for the world at large, since our seas are all connected.”

The Green Connection’s strategic leader Liziwe McDaid said the organisation was very disturbed to learn that Samsa and the DFFE had allowed the dumping of toxic waste off the West Coast.

She said that while they understood it was an emergency, and that the waste will be deep down and far from the coast, the department should have consulted widely first, as the law allows the minister to consult with interested parties.

“We would question why the ocean is being used for toxic waste dumping when we should be protecting our oceans. We are very uncomfortable with the ’out of sight, out of mind’ approach, and would request transparency and that the minister engage with interested parties.”

Reached for comment, ANC MP Khaya Magaxa said he was unaware of the dumping but would be following up the issue.

DFFE spokesperson Zolile Nqayi referred queries from the Argus to Samsa

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Samsa spokesperson Tebogo Ramatjie said the ship has a cargo of steel coils and fertiliser, and that an emergency dumping permit had been obtained from the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) to dump the reacting cargo at sea.

“About 1 500 tons of cargo will be dumped 250km from the closest point to land, and in excess of 3 000m of water. The dumping operation is expected to be concluded on March 15, 2022,” said Ramatjie.

He said that, to date, more than 1 000 tonnes of the cargo has been taken out of the vessel and it is expected that the remaining hot spots will be removed and dumped by the March 15 deadline.

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After authorising the dump, Samsa gave an assurance that toxic fumes coming off a vessel offshore, near St Helena Bay, poses no immediate threat to either the marine environment or to humans.

However, infrared imaging provided by Samsa suggests that some of the cargo is still quite warm, even as it is dumped into the sea.

Infra-red imaging of an affected NS Qingdao cargo hold. Picture: Courtesy of SAMSA/Holling

During an interview with Cape Talk, Samsa acting chief operations officer Vernon Keller said: “The reason we’re doing it in the Bay is because it is far from a port and any residential areas, and at sea. The wind blows mostly offshore, so we can do this in a safe manner when it comes to toxic things.”

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He said that was a common misconception that the cargo was lots of chemicals. He said that while there are components of chemicals, the cargo is mainly fertiliser.

He said the original plan was to discharge the cargo to a dumping site at the Vissershok landfill, which is located close to Table View and exists for the disposal of general and low to medium hazardous waste, which cannot be reused or recycled.

With regard to ocean flora and fauna where the waste was being dumped, Keller said Samsa had consulted with marine biologists, chemists and the DFFE before taking action.

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