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Tragedy at Chisumbanje ethanol plant

By Xolisani Ncube

Human life, animals and underground water are at the mercy of extinction and pollution by waste matter discharged by Green Fuel’s ethanol production in Chisumbanje, with some people in the area reportedly now partially blind, while others are developing feet sores, parliament heard yesterday.

Tragedy at Chisumbanje ethanol plant
Tragedy at Chisumbanje ethanol plant

Appearing before a parliamentary committee on Youth, Indigenisation and Empowerment, Environmental Management Agency (Ema) head Mutsa Chasi said the Billy Rautenbach-owned company was flouting environmental laws such that human lives and animals were at risk of death.

“Green Fuel is aware of what needs to be done yet it has remained adamant in not

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complying. From what we have seen of its attitude, it seems it has become a matter of ‘it is better to pollute than to comply’,” Chasi said.

“From the effluent that it is discharging into Save River, it is acidic and lacks the required quantity of oxygen. From tests carried out by an independent professor from the University of Zimbabwe, it was shown that the fish in the Save River will die because of the waste the company is discharging.”

Chasi said the company was told to construct a bio-digester and ensure that the effluent they were discharging was less toxic and harmful to livestock and human life.

“In 20 to 30 years to come, we are likely to have a total extinction of life in the area, the people in that community would be worse off than they were before the project because they will be unable to do anything,” she said.

Ema head revealed to the committee that since 2010, Green Fuel has “adamantly refused to comply with environment laws, saying some senior officials of the company were in the tendency of belittling the state-owned environmental watchdog.

The committee visited the community early this year where people showed them sores on their feet, while others claimed to have become partially blind because of consuming water polluted by the effluent discharged from the ethanol plant.

Committee chairperson Justice Mayor Wadyajena asked Chasi to confirm if reports they received during the public hearing in July in Chisumbanje that some people were now partially blind because of the water and photographs of people with feet sores were true.

“We will go back with the ministry of health officials to carryout extra tests on the people you are referring to,” Chasi replied. “What we can confirm is that the acid level in the water is unhealthy for human consumption and has adverse effects on human beings and we can’t rule out that (impartial blindness).

Chasi continued: “The acid levels being released directly into the river and underground water has the potential to affect the digestive system of human beings and cattle in the area have been finding it hard to drink water from the rivers around the area because it is harmful and dangerous to the livestock.

“We have issued three tickets and fined them and also an order has been made so they stop their operations until they fulfill the environmental laws of the land, but they have just refused to comply.”

Green Fuel is currently producing 300 000 litres of ethanol per day which equates to $300 000 per day and $108, 6 million per year.

The MPs took Chasi and her team to task as to why they were not enforcing the law by ensuring the closure of the fuel company, to which she said Ema was limited on how to punish “such wayward” companies that disregard the law.

“In one of our board consultations with the company, they told us they have no money to comply and are fully aware of what they are doing,” Chasi said.

She told the committee that Ema has tried, to no avail, to force Green Fuel to implement environmental laws and has now opened a criminal case against the company, which was also taking too long to be processed.

The MPs ordered Ema to start issuing daily tickets to the company until it complies, a move that if implemented would mean that the company would fork out $1,8million in ticketing fines in the next year starting today.

For operating without the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), Ema should fine Green Fuel $5 000 daily until it complies, according to an order from MPs.

Chasi said Ema ordered Green Fuel to shut down on February 16 2011, but the company ignored its order, prompting the opening of a docket with the police. The Zimbabwe Mail