A touch of tentative hope in the air surrounds the more than six year long battles in the Stellenbosch area by sensitive residents, who have and are suffering from the ill effects of toxic spray drift from neighbouring wine farms.
The event which gave me hope that things will now be moving towards giving effected residents a proper hearing and respite from their troubles was the first meeting of a public participation process during which the Stellenbosch Municipality will be drawing up a long awaited Air Quality Management Plan (AQMP) for the area.
There was supposed to be 3 different groups represented here: industries, farmers and residents. Whilst the industry sector was well represented, there was not one farmer to be seen. This added fuel to the fire of the affected residents, who are members of a special pressure group, The Air that I Breathe (TATIB), who has been fighting this battle for some years now.
Town planner, Bernabé de la Bat, opened the meeting before the consultant tasked with the drawing up of this plan, Dr. Mark Zunckel of uMoya-NILU Consulting (Pty) Ltd set about explaining the process that will be followed to draw up this plan.
According to our Constitution, and specifically Act 108 of 1996, every person has the right to clean air that is not harmful to their health and wellbeing. Yet over the years the air in our towns and cities has deteriorated due to human activities that produce air pollution.
Air pollution is defined as “the presence of one or more contaminants in the atmosphere with the potential to impact negatively on human, animal or plant life.” Examples include dust, ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s).
According to the Air Quality Act, every municipality is required to have an AQMP and must appoint an Air Quality Manager to see to the implementation of this plan. The Western Cape also has a provincial AQMP under which the Cape Winelands District falls with its own AQMP. Stellenbosch would be the second municipality after Drakenstein to draw up such a plan for the area.
Dr. Zunckel explained what this process would entail:
- Establishing stakeholder groups and conducting a baseline assessment
- Doing a gap and problem analyses
- Developing an air quality vision and goals
- Developing the Plan
- Implementation of interventions and
- Monitoring, evaluation and review
“According to the classical list of pollutants, with old indicators, air quality is relatively good in Stellenbosch,” said Dr. Zunckel. This was followed by a stream of questions and complaints from affected residents, clearly frustrated after struggling – some for years – for a proper response and the protection our Constitution supposedly grants them.
- Mrs Amanda Odendaal, who herself had ended up in hospital in 2010 from inhaling spray drift, questioned why an Air Quality Manager had not been appointed yet. The assurance was given before that an amount was granted for such an appointment, but this was never done.
- Mr. De la Bat responded that he cannot comment on the past and Dr.Zunckel confirmed that appointing an Air Quality Management Officer is now a legal requirement, so this will be happening. Later during the meeting Mr. De la Bat said that they have shortlisted applications for an environmental officer, who would also take on this portfolio and that this appointment would happen within the next six months.
- “They should ensure this person has no ties to the wine industry, as it’s all about politics and money,” one of the TATIB members said.
- Mrs. Odendaal mentioned that the only action that they and the TATIB members are asking for is that the application requirements on the products labels of agricultural chemicals should be adhered to and enforced. “That the spray drift is dangerous to the health of those who inhale it is not under question – that has been proven.” Clearly spraying during prevailing winds poses a problem as it is then impossible to contain the spray to the vineyards. According to TATIB there is supposed to be a buffer zone between the vineyards and the surrounding residences, which is often not the case. Mrs. Odendaal suggested that this should be 4 km.
- Dr. Jan du Plessis, a medical practitioner treating patients ill from spray drift, said “Do the farmers have to go back to school to learn what these poisons do to those inhaling them? Information is available – don’t they read?”
- A young resident of a golf estate, with dark ringed eyes, arrived with her young baby. She herself was ill and could hardly speak. I found out that her entire family’s health was affected by spray drift for some time.
- Another resident had to move out thanks to severe health problems and was then threatened by the body corporate for speaking to the press. Her doctor said she cannot return, as she will sustain permanent damage if her body absorbs any more poisons.
- Ms. Angela Andrews, an environmental lawyer, said it would be costly to establish baseline conditions, expressed concern that the process would get bogged down in collecting data and asked if this was manageable. Dr. Zunckel assured her that it was within the scope of his work to get that information and see to continual monitoring of the situation. She said the problems that the TATIB members had experiences were caused by the non-compliance to product labels and asked how that will be enforced.
- Mrs. Odendaal asked whose responsibility is was to implement pesticide regulations, upon which Dr. Zunckel responded that the regulation lies with the Department of Agriculture. “And who is responsible for the Air Quality Management Plan?” she asked. This lies with the district municipalities, he responded.
- Ms Andrews said that the AQMP follows best practice, but it is policed by the Department of Agriculture and that this is not going to happen until there is coordination between the state and Agriculture. An institutional basis needs to be created.
- Another problem raised was the waste burning which happens in the area and that an informal settlement is situated inside its buffer zone. This pollution is extremely difficult to quantify, said Dr. Zunckel.
- Mr. Jacques Rossouw said the problems with spray drift effecting neighbouring residents is caused by conflicting land usage. As the town developed, residential areas had moved into agricultural areas. This conflict causes the increasing risk to residents.
- Angela Andrews said that Prof. Leslie London had done extensive work to prove that the technology used to apply the pesticides lends itself to non-compliance to the product regulations on the labels. Different technologies are supposed to be used at different distances from the fences.
- Dr. Zunckel said that crop spraying is potentially a national issue.
- “What is needed is for a person who is using a product to illustrate HOW they will comply with application regulations,” said Angela Andrews.
- It was also mentioned that farm workers are not sufficiently protected either. Some TATIB members have photographs of workers spraying without sufficient or any protection for themselves. They have also seen spraying happening while other workers are in the vineyards.
Stellenbosch is in the unique position to push and agenda for the rest of the country.
“The Province is busy with a needs assessment for comprehensive human health risk and chemical spraying is one of the aspects under scrutiny,” said Jeff Jefferson, a representative from the Department of Environmental Affairs.
He encouraged those present to participate in that process. The next meeting to discuss that assessment will be held on 11 February in the Auditorium in Milnerton.
Dr. Zunckel will now do a baseline assessment, and then formulate the second workshop. The process needs to be completed by May. He also said they will try to elevate this matter to provincial and national levels.
Although I left the meeting feeling somewhat hopeful that this matter will finally get the attention it deserves, TATIB members seemed more skeptical.
Residents’ names have been withheld to protect their identities.