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The Bisasar Road landfill project: an environmental hazard (Watch This! #4)

See Watch This! #4, December 2012

By Khadija Sharife, researcher with the Center for Civil Society (CCS- UKZN), South Africa

When UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christina Figueres described Durban’s Bisasar methane-to-gas electricity project as one of the world’s top ten green energy projects, the Durban Municipality breathed a sigh of relief. After all, not so long ago, a cover story in the Washington Post, highlighting the dump’s apartheid-era origins, was enough to scare investors, including the World Bank, away.

Created in a ‘black’ residential area without a buffer zone, South Africa’s largest formal landfill accepted everything from sewage sludge to medical waste, was given the green-light by the Municipality for its location to the City and available landfill space. Yet, once upon a time, the African National Congress – the country’s anti-apartheid liberation movement, campaigned to close it down as a gross and lethal act of environmental racism. The Cancer Association of South Africa even likened it to a carcinogenic experiment where residents were ‘lab rats’. But come liberation, due in no small part to the courage of the ANC, and the economic principles of the global financial architecture, not only sustained various forms of inequality, but gave it logic in a depoliticized fashion. Put simply, it is apartheid without the stigma.

The gaming of CDM rules is evident everywhere. The project violates both explicit and implied national and international law on several levels. South Africa, for instance, maintains in Section 4.4 of the Minimum Requirements legislation: “It is a minimum requirement that no landfill site be developed in an area with an inherent fatal flaw – easily identified in the origin of the dump, with its blatant disregard for public health and safety”. Nonetheless the South African authorities approved the project as contributing to the sustainable development of the country, a first prerequisite for all CDM projects. What’s more the Bisasar project itself was initiated well ahead of CDM approval (with gas flaring beginning in 1996), as a form of managing landfill gas, in a manner that would prove economically beneficial with environmental benefits as ancillary. By its nature, flaring projects evidence as much as 90% escape gas, with Bisasar itself, according to waste-NGO Gaia, losing about 60%.

The Durban municipality appeared to originally conceive of the idea as a means of generating electricity for the City while flaring down the methane gas. “But as the City, if we can make some money out of it, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be done and the whole moral issue is separate from the project….. We started the project prior to CDM. We were already heading down that road, (we) just made it work faster because the funding was there. If the funding wasn’t there, we may have had to delay the project until funding could be found through other means….

While the company Trading Emissions PLC signed an agreement in November 2008 to purchase one million CERs, it appears, as of late 2011, that no CERs have yet been traded.

Even as he admitted that the project would have gone ahead, with or without CDM status – in theory, disqualifying it from CDM status – for the purposes of flaring own gas in an economically ‘positive’ manner, like many governments around the world, millions have been invested justified by the myth of CDM ‘payback’. When asked how CDM as justification facilitated the development of the project through City investment, Parkins revealed, “Because when you motivate the city, you say this will eventually be an income source and won’t be a drain…. We have 480 000 credits in the pipeline and issuances waiting for 65 000.” For companies like Trading Emissions PLC, this may be a pot of gold at the end of the hot air rainbow. For the rest of the planet, such CDM projects easily qualify as ‘rip-offset’.

While deregistration should logically follow a project plagued with as many problems as Bisasar, beginning with the nature of methane-to-gas projects, and ending with the horrific history of the dump, this is unlikely to happen unless the alter of the market is replaced by that of ecological justice.

CCS hosts the Environmental Justice Organizations, Trade and Liabilities (EJOLT) project. EJOLT is a large collaborative project bringing science and society together to catalogue ecological distribution conflicts and work towards confronting environmental injustice Khadija is also a journalist and writes for ‘The Africa Report’. She can be contacted at: [email protected]


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