Zimasco's environmental troubles far from over

HARARE - Zimasco (Private) Limited’s troubles with the government are far from over as the Environmental Management Agency (Ema) has confirmed a serious pollution scandal at its Midlands operations, which has badly affected surrounding communities such as Mbizo.

This also comes as new information suggests that the Chinese-owned ferro-chrome producer had been aware of this vast environmental damage since 1999 and its spin-doctors have been desperate to discredit an earlier, and government-sanctioned report as “premature, non-binding and unverified”.

“After the media reports and exposés, Ema moved in on Zimasco’s plant in Kwekwe in May and it was discovered that effluent water containing chromium hexavalent is generated during slag recovery operations..,” said a source, adding adjacent communities were at risk since “hexavalent was poisonous to the extent of causing respiratory and skin problems”.

“As the damning June report also confirmed that… chromium six was being discharged into the immediate environs, this has caused the forced closure of a borehole at Chiedza School,” they said.

While Zimasco’s backers have also tried to downplay the devastating impact of its “reckless actions” by pushing a narrative that the issues centred more on “process water discharge allowable limits of 0.05 milligrammes, and not a safe drinking water global benchmark of 0,02 microgrammes”, it has emerged that the company had even hired Stewart Scott to fix this long-running problem.

“Still, Ema’s recent inspections have revealed that contamination levels at the Chiedza borehole were

10 000 times above normal or permissible limits at the time of sampling the key water source,” people familiar with the report say.

And despite the recommendations made by the Zimbabwean consultancy for the Sinosteel Corporation subsidiary to build a $1 million pollution control and treatment  plant nearly 17 years ago, it would seem that the project was inexplicably abandoned altogether.

“In the wake of a December 1999 report, which unearthed serious environmental damage and discharge of…effluent water that’s affecting nearby rivers such as Sebakwe, one gets a feeling that the communities have not only been vindicated in launching that $500 million lawsuit against Zimasco (and possibly banks as well), but the guys have just been fiddling since 20 years ago,” said another high-level source and ex-senior employee of Zimasco.

“If the State is not going to punish this flagrant abuse and neglect over the past 17 years of social duty after Scott verily noted that chromium VI levels were above legal limits on majority of samples, then this would be a serious aberration of the law,” the source, who slammed Zimasco’s selective amnesia and also added he was willing to testify against the firm, said.

And as the company was served with a corrective on May 20 by Ema, this debunks company judicial manager Reggie Saruchera’s recent claims that its environmental issues — estimated at $30 million to clean up — have been resolved for now.

Among the directives that Zimasco was given was that it must immediately start decontamination work with weekly reports to the government agency, provide an alternative drinking source of water for Chiedza and install a waste treatment plant.

“The chromium VI levels were way above the rates of World Health Organisation guidelines. The pollution has also spread and is affecting the nearby Mbizo community,” the source privy to the report said.

Apart from environmental issues, Zimasco is in the throes of serious financial difficulties — marked by debts in excess of $180 million — and which have necessitated its placement under provisional judicial management.

And as the company also battles other problems such as uncertainty over the availability of a vaunted bailout package from its Chinese parent — as announced in its June 3 court application — the ferro-chrome producer is equally facing a forensic audit to check if there was no externalisation of money.

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