Cyanide levels in river ‘safe’


The Department of Environmental Affairs were expected to meet residents in Newcastle on Monday to discuss a way forward on the recent spill of cyanide in the Ngagane river.

Last week 11 cows died within minutes of drinking water in the river, and chemical company Karbochem has admitted to the spill.

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The Buffalo river, part of the Umzinyathi river system, as seen from the reservoir nearby. Despite the presence of this system and a communal tap, most people in the area use water directly from the contaminated river system to cook, bathe and wash. Picture: Gcina Ndwalane

However, the department has assured people that the cyanide in the water is now at safe levels.

Spokesman for the Department of Environmental Affairs, Jeffrey Zikhali, said the department had measured a high amount of cyanide in the river.

“We added chlorine to the water to try to neutralise it,” he said. “We also spoke to the community about the dangers of the water.”

While officials have given communities the go-ahead to use the water from the river, riverside residents are not as keen.

The owner of the 11 cattle, Vusimuzi Kubheka, said the company needed to be more vigilant. “The company needs to investigate how the source of the leak came to cause such a problem. Obviously, somebody wasn’t doing their job,” he said.

Kubheka said the loss of his cattle was especially upsetting because they had been his breeding cows.

“These are worth far more than slaughter cows. And some of them had been running with my bull – if any of them was pregnant, they would have calved by September. This makes it a huge loss to me.” Each animal was worth between R9 000 and R12 000.

Kubheka said he and Karbochem had been in talks over compensation for the nine cows recovered from the stream, but details had not yet been discussed.

Alfred Khumalo, an Nquthu resident who has lived on the banks of the river for seven years, said: “I heard about the cattle dying on the radio, and I’m worried about my animals getting sick.”

He said he was concerned about the health of his family. The community shared one communal tap but still used water from the river for washing, drinking and cooking.

Thandeka Sibiya, another resident of the area, said she was concerned about people being poisoned by the water.

“Nobody from the municipality warned us,” Sibiya said.

Dr Dumisani Thabethe, communications manager of Uthukela Water, said the river had been flushed with water from the Chelmsford dam nearby and that the spill had been “contained”.

“We did this to dilute the chemical and have confirmed with Karbochem, the company responsible for the leak, that the substance was cyanide,” he said.

He said that since the incident, there had been no new reports of sick or dead livestock.

“People are also in no danger – the water is safe,” he said.

He said Uthukela Water, the municipality and other bodies had met on Friday to discuss a way forward and put in place precautionary measures.

GroundWork director, Bobby Peek, said this was not the first time a chemical spill happened in this area, and that these types of spills are not monitored as well as they should be. “Although those affected may be taking legal action, the fact is that the spill has already happened,” he said. “The question is, why did this happen, and why didn’t government pick up on it earlier?”

Peek said long-term and continuous monitoring was needed from the government.

Mayor of Newcastle, Afzul Rehman, said the company was trying to ascertain how much of the chemical had made it into the Ngagane river.

Water Services Authority manager, Nkululeko Ncube, said they were still monitoring the situation. “Flushing the river will allow the chemicals to be drained away and diluted. The water is safe,” he said.

Spokesman for Karbochem, Jaco Prinsloo, said the leak had been found, but they were still unsure whether such a leak could have caused the “unfortunate situation”.

“The contaminants have been neutralised, diluted and flushed away. It has not been removed from the river, but is of no danger to animals or humans,” said Prinsloo.

He said the company would enter into discussions with any affected party.

“The company is the owner of the site where this incident occurred, but the company processes do not involve the manufacture or use of cyanide. This specific incident will be investigated together with all the tenants on the site to determine the exact cause of the problem. Once this is known, everything will be done to prevent a recurrence of the incident.”

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