ArcelorMittal South Africa v. Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance

Access to Information
Access to Justice

Company Secretary of ArcelorMittal South Africa v. Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance [2014] ZASCA 184
Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa

A citizens group (VEJA) submitted access to information requests to a South African steel manufacturing company (ArcelorMittal) seeking the company’s master plan and progress reports concerning environmental protection and rehabilitation at two manufacturing sites.  ArcelorMittal withheld certain documents. 

South Africa’s Promotion of Access to Information Act grants public access to any record of a private body if the record is required “for the protection of any rights.”  In its request, VEJA pointed to the constitutional right to a healthy environment and stated that it wanted the information to ensure that ArcelorMittal was complying with environmental laws and that remediation at the manufacturing sites was being implemented. ArcelorMittal claimed that VEJA was improperly usurping the role of the regulatory authority and was not entitled to access the master plan. 

The Court observed that “[ArcelorMittal’s] industrial activities, impacting as they do on the environment, including air quality and water resources, has an effect on persons and communities in the immediate vicinity and is ultimately of importance to the country as a whole.  Translated, this means that the public is affected and that [ArcelorMittal’s] activities and the effects thereof are matters of public importance and interest.”  Para. 52.  The Court emphatically recognized that VEJA plays a vital role as an advocate for environmental justice. 

ArcelorMittal also urged the Court to draw a distinction between the obligations of the state and private parties with regard to disclosing information.  The Court noted: “[O]ne must guard against forcing corporates to throw open their books on claims of alleged minor errors or irregularities.  The basis provided by VEJA for its application does not fall into the category of trivial or frivolous.  It concerns us all. In my view it is clear that VEJA supplied an adequate basis for its requests and is entitled to the information sought; it is entitled as an advocate for environmental justice to monitor the operations of [ArcelorMittal] and its effects on the environment.”  Para. 80.

The Court criticized ArcelorMittal’s lack of candor throughout the litigation, and issued a stern warning: “Corporations operating within our borders, whether local or international, must be left in no doubt that in relation to the environment . . . there is no room for secrecy and that constitutional values will be enforced.”  Para. 82.

The Court awarded costs to VEJA.