RESIDENTS living near a usually docile dump site in Shallcross were startled each time it coughed-up smelly plumes of smoke at different points, over the past two weeks, which hung ominously until winds carried it away.
Even when their doors and windows were shut, residents complained that the stench still got to them.
Some living in close proximity to the dump site on Ras Dashan Street spoke about breathing difficulties, and wondered about possible long-term health implications, should the smoke emissions persist.
Smoke emissions usually happened at night, they said, and municipal workmen responded by spraying water and dumping sand thereafter.
However, community members claimed the eThekwini Municipality’s failure to engage with them about the smoking dump site and its potential hazards, did little to put them at ease.
Paris Singh, a long-standing Shallcross community leader and former ward councillor, said the old Development Services Board were in control of the area from 1965, and that general waste material was dumped there.
Post-democracy, the authorities had converted it into a garden refuse dump site.
Singh said many layers of dumping over the years has resulted in the site growing nearly five metres in height in some places.
“Peak Street, which is on the opposite side of the dump site entrance, can barely be seen these days,” Singh said.
Singh believes the smoke emissions stemmed from under the surface general waste that has decomposed over time.
Musa Chamane, a waste campaigner with GroundWork: Friends of the Earth SA, an environmental justice action organisation, said if general waste was piled there previously, then, the smoke had to be the result of a build-up of methane gas underneath the surface.
Chamane predicted smoke would continue to rise due to the presence of methane.
He described it to be like the LP (Liquefied petroleum) gas used in households.
“Even if the site is filled with soil and rehabilitated, it won’t stop methane emissions.
“Methane is colourless like oxygen, highly flammable and when it burns, you notice smoke, which causes discomfort,” he said.
He was fairly certain that hazardous waste material was buried there previously, like items of plastics, old computers, appliances and batteries.
“In years gone by, there were no strict regulations for managing landfills.
“When such items burn, it produces a cocktail of chemicals, which would impact the surrounding environment, including people,” he said.
Chamane warned there could be serious consequences for residents living nearby, especially if they inhaled gases over a prolonged period.
“They could develop respiratory irritations including asthma and even cancer, which are caused by toxic chemicals called dioxins and furans,” he said.
Therefore, he called on the municipality to act decisively and even warn people about the dangers.
He said that landfill sites were notorious for sliding, as happened previously at the Bulbul Drive landfill site in Silverglen, Chatsworth.
Chamane explained that the various dumped waste materials decomposed at varying rates and this imbalance could cause a landslide.
‘Anything can happen when it rains,” Chamane said.
That’s exactly the fear of resident Shan Pillay.
“If we have continuous rainfall over a few days, I fear there could be landslides and nearby houses on the edges of the site would be affected. It is like a disaster waiting to happen,” said Pillay, who also wondered whether the municipality had done a recent environmental impact assessment of the site.
Morgan Reddy who has been living in the area for nearly 40 years said the smoke affected his sinusitis condition and made it difficult for him to breathe.
Reddy believes there were others in the community who were affected similarly.
“When there is a slight wind, it also carries dust into our homes,” he said.
Reddy suggested the municipality needed to find a way to tap the methane gas.
Maqsood Shaik, another long-time resident, said if adults struggled to breathe, imagine how it affected children, the elderly and those with medical conditions.
“We’ve never seen smoke like this before and our WhatsApp group chats are abuzz with activity when it rises.
“This is extremely concerning for us,” said Shaik.
Msawakhe Mayisela, the eThekwini Municipality’s spokesperson said they were aware of the smoke emissions in Shallcross.
“The fire started late on Sunday night and senior management was on site early on Monday to assess the situation and engage with the residents,” he said.
Mayisela said they were yet to establish what has led to the smoke emissions, but the fire department was contacted, an excavator was brought to site to get deep into the waste and extinguish the fire.
A big water tanker was brought to site and tipper trucks carrying sand were brought to cover the affected areas, he said.
“The site will continue to operate for approximately two years if airspace is still available.
“This site is a benefit to residents of this area, who dispose garden refuse there at no charge. Only commercial customers are charged,” he said.
In response to some residents calling for the closure of the dump site, he said: “A large number of residents dispose garden refuse there at no charge.
“Closing this site will result in illegal dumping, with residents having to drive to Mariannhill which is bit further away. Garden refuse disposal at the Mariannhill Landfill is also chargeable.”