Pietermaritzburg citizens choke on smoke from landfill fire

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The city of Pietermaritzburg has been covered with plumes of allegedly toxic smoke coming from a burning landfill.

The blaze that started at the New England Road landfill site late last week has already caused the closure of the nearby schools, such as Ridge Primary School, New England Pre-Primary, Epworth, St Charles College, and St  John’s Diocesan School.

According to Msunduzi municipality spokesperson Thobeka Mafumbatha, additional resources have been deployed to the area to assist the firefighters.

“We have sent more water tankers – two teams from Msunduzi, two teams from Umgungundlovu and two more teams from Working on Fire. They are working on the edges to ensure the fire is controlled,” Mafumbatha stated.

However, the fire is hard to contain due to heavy winds and hot temperatures.

“It’s still going on and there’s no way we’re going to put it out. I was there on Sunday and that whole side of the dump is well alight. We only have one truck there and we need more than one crew. This morning the whole town was covered in a blanket of this acrid smell,” one of the firefighters claimed on Monday.

He added that the fire could have been started by the waste pickers sorting the rubbish on the site to sell it for recycling. Some of them even live there.

“It burnt all our things. We have nothing. We don’t have sacks [to collect litter]. We go around asking people to help us. We don’t know what we are going to eat. Our job is over. We are facing a tough time and we don’t even know what we are going to cook at home,” Lindeni Mbele, one of the waste pickers, complained.

She refuted the allegations that it was the waste pickers who had caused the fire.

“It was caused by all these chemicals people throw away here. We have on many occasions seen fire come out of nowhere because of the chemicals. Waste pickers do not smoke here because we know it might burn our livelihood,” she explained.

KZN MEC for economic development, tourism and environmental affairs Nomusa Dube-Ncube paid a visit to the 20ha ladnfill site, once known as the best run in the country, and accused the Msunduzi municipality of its poor management.

“There are no controls. There are people working and living on the site, and there are not supposed to be people living there,” she advised. “Yesterday, we realised this situation is beyond the control of the municipality and we think they need extra capacity. We were able to pull engines from other departments of economic development, tourism and environmental affairs, and fire people from eThekwini.”

Dube-Ncube also condemned the behavior of the waste pickers she had witnessed during the tour.

“Unfortunately, people there do not realise that what they are doing is illegal. They don’t realise that what they are doing is wrong, that it is dangerous and that it has a wider impact than what they are doing here,” she said. “As we were walking around the site we found people starting fires, there are other burning metal. There are other burning all types of different things so that they can compact them and put them in sacks to sell.”

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