There is no room for corporate secrecy in relation to environmental matters affecting the public. Corporations operating within South Africa (whether local or international) will be obliged to disclose such documents revealing matters relevant to the public even if the request comes from an environmental organisation.
In the case of Company Secretary of Arcelormittal South Africa v Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, a non-profit voluntary association that characterised itself as an advocate for environmental justice requested documents from a major industrial corporation producing steel products. The documents related to the historical, operational and strategic approach to the protection of the environment at their steel works including the company’s Environmental Master Plan.
The court relied on section 24 of the Constitution which entrenches the right to an environment that is not harmful to health or well-being and the Promotion of Access to Information Act which allows access to documents ‘required’ for the exercise or protection of any rights. ‘Required’ must be construed as ‘reasonably required’ in the prevailing circumstances. The association was protecting the public interest to ensure that the operations were conducted according to law, that pollution is prevented and that remediation of pollution is properly planned.
Environmental protection requires consultation and interaction with the public.
The court held that participation of public interest groups is vital for the protection of the environment. The National Environmental Management Act, 1998 requires environmental management to place people and their needs at the forefront to its concern.
Environmental protection requires consultation and interaction with the public because environmental degradation affects us all. A balance will be struck between the competing concerns of the environmental manager and the public. The public can clearly not participate and expect collaboration on every aspect. A common sense approach must be adopted. Corporates will not be required to throw open their books in relation to all claims of minor errors or irregularities. But matters of serious public concern need collaboration. Even private companies must be responsive to public concerns.
Financial institutions lending funds for environmentally sensitive projects must be aware that transparency and collaboration with the public may affect the project.