Pretoria - Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica has condemned the recently uncovered illegal dumping of medical waste in Welkom, Free State.
The Green Scorpions last week unearthed 300 tons of used bandages and needles, vials and discarded pills buried in trenches at a local brick factory.
"The Department of Environmental Affairs views these illegal activities in a very serious light and the Environmental Management Inspectorate (Green Scorpions) will leave no stone unturned in ensuring that those found transgressing the environmental laws will face the full might of the law," she said.
The Minister said compliance with environmental laws was not negotiable and players in the health care risk waste sector must understand it.
Buyelwa further indicated that a zero tolerance approach would be adopted with the medical waste sector.
"The Department cannot condone the deliberate disregard of strict laws aimed at ensuring that waste is correctly managed, especially when this disregard places our communities and environment at risk," she said.
The illicit dumping is also of grave concern to the department as medical waste can pose a health and bio-hazard risk to the people that may come into contact with it.
There is also a risk that significant harm may be caused to the environment such as pollution of soil and underground water and surface water resources.
Sonjica reiterated that the department is tightening the laws on environmental offences.
In terms of the recent amendments to environmental laws, the maximum penalties for committing these offences which contravene the National Environmental Management Waste Act are R10m or 10 years imprisonment or both.
Sonjica said the magnitude and severity of these recent crimes further reinforced the critical need for dedicated green courts to deal with these types of cases.
The department believes that the re-establishment of dedicated green courts (including dedicated prosecutors) would have a profound impact in the fight against environmental crime.
To ensure that all avenues of investigation and prosecution for this case are followed, Sonjica said they were working very closely with various law enforcement agencies such as the South African Police Services (SAPS), the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), and the Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU).
She also commended the journalists who were involved in the process of uncovering the illegal dumping sites.
"The media play a significant role in conveying information to the public and raising awareness about such important issues.
"I want to urge members of the public to blow the whistle on such activities. Very often, it is you, the citizen who is in a position to provide information on such serious crimes, bearing in mind that this investigation was sparked through a tip-off received by the department," she said.
Meanwhile, Free State Premier Ace Magashule said the provincial government was looking into taking legal action against those involved and was also reporting the matter to the Hawks.
He added that the auditing of government or hospital incinerators would be revised to ensure that the province has incinerators that have the capacity to treat buried Health Care Risk Waste (HCRW).
Magashule said the provincial health department, in consultation with the department of environmental affairs, would also consider the establishment of Waste Information Management System to allow provinces to trace the amount of waste generated per institution and the amount of waste treated and disposed of by service providers.
Sonjica's department has a 24-hour environmental crimes and incidents hotline (0800 205 005) which members of the community are urged to use.