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The JSE-Listed Tongaat Hulett Group’s refinery in South Durban has put in place measures to reduce its carbon footprint and environmental impact on neighbouring communities since 2005.
The South Durban Industrial Basin is considered a pollution hot spot and has an active community with well-established environmental activists that have earned their stripes in confrontation with industrial polluters.
But after complaints from communities the Tongaat Hulett refinery has started a consultative forum to address the concerns.
Established in 1910 in Rossburgh, an integral part of Durban’s South Basin with a mix of heavy industry and dense community settlement, the refinery’s main business includes refining raw brown sugar into high quality white sugar and related products. It currently refines about 600 000 tons of raw sugar annually.
A rapid change in environmental legislation, combined with increasing public awareness of environmental and health issues, put the Tongaat Hulett Refinery under pressure to reduce pollution levels.
Besides meeting legislative requirements, management realised that forming relationships with its community neighbours, local authorities and the public was essential.
Residents from Rossburgh to Montclair, Seaview, Clairwood and other South Durban suburbs |believed that the noise, sugar dust and air pollution was all the fault of the sugar refinery in South Coast Road.
“With some difficulty and hostility from the local communities, an independently facilitated community forum was established in 2006. Everyone who had lodged a complaint with the refinery, local community-based organisations and the ward councillors were invited to attend the first meeting, held in March 2006,” said Natisha Padayachee, Tongaat Hulett Refinery environmental manager.
“The initial meetings were very difficult, and the refinery came under severe pressure from community members and activists,” she said.
Tongaat Hulett took each complaint and looked at how it could improve its business and reduce the pollution. Sugar dust, which used to plague the refinery’s neighbouring mosque particularly, has been virtually eliminated by changing the loading and unloading procedures and installing water sprays and extractor fans.
An acoustics consultant was hired to identify noise sources and made recommendations, which resulted in a capital replacement of old vacuum pumps. A reduction in noise has also been attributed to reduced steam blow-off as a result of the more stable operating conditions following an upgrade to the steam generating equipment.
The community strongly believed the refinery was responsible for the high level of sulphur dioxide in the air (emitted during coal burning to generate electricity for sugar refining), which was causing health problems. Levels of sulphur dioxide and other atmospheric pollutants around the plant and Mowat Park School were recorded by the eThekwini Environmental Health Department.
A R60 million upgrade to the steam generating equipment and the fitting of a scrubber (between 2005 and 2008) has resulted in a 30 percent reduction in emissions, improved the performance of the plant and sulphur dioxide levels have remained consistently lower than the permitted maximum.
“It has been a long road but we have been successful…
“The stakeholder forum has, through sharing business information and environmental progress reports with the community, achieved an improved understanding of refinery operations. There have been improved levels of trust and co-operation, reduced pollution and complaints, improved environmental performance and we’ve established a new confidence in the role of industry in the area,” Padayachee said.
Members of the community-based stakeholder forum, such as the Seaview Conservancy, believe that all industries should follow the example of Tongaat Hulett.
“The concerns of the community were valid and we were quite hostile to begin with. The attitude of the management, however, has been to acknowledge where there are shortcomings and to accept accountability for those things which are their responsibility. We need many more industries to do the same,” said Robert Brusse of the Seaview Conservancy.