Durban fuel leak may force more from homes

'I will fight with the very last breath in me to protect the health of my little girl," emotional mother Mary-Ann Smit, the first to report the massive Sapref fuel refinery leak, has told a public meeting on the Bluff in Durban.

Smit was one of a small group of Wentworth, Bluff and Merebank residents who gathered at Dirkie Uys Primary School this week to speak out about the impact of the leak on their neighbourhoods.

Their complaints come amid fears that more families might have to evacuate their homes as a result of petrol vapour pollution.

Smit's only daughter, 15-year-old Sherry, suffers from the rare auto-immune disease systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).

Smit was also the first resident to complain about petrol fumes in her home three months ago, leading to the discovery of an underground leak of up to 750 000 litres of petrol from the Shell and BP-operated Sapref refinery.

She told the meeting doctors could not explain the exact cause of her daughter's illness, which began several years ago, but she was concerned about the long-term health effects that hydrocarbon vapours and benzene could have on her family's health.

"My husband is an asthmatic and he has been virtually living on his nebuliser for the last three months."

She also recalled that Bronwyn Campbell, the 15-year-old daughter of one of her close friends, died of SLE four years ago.

Bronwyn's next-door neighbour in Dunville Road, three-year-old Geraldine MacDonald, died of kidney cancer seven years ago.

"Sherry is my only child and I will fight for her life," said Smit, her voice choking with emotion.

Mother of two Scharlotte van Staden, who had been advised by Sapref to abandon her home temporarily because of the leak, wanted to know why city health officials had not visited residents living near the fuel leak.

"We want to beg the government to protect us from the polluting industries immediately."

South Durban community leader Desmond D'Sa said poor environmental practices by Shell and BP refineries in Holland and Britain would not be tolerated.

"But the third world is different. Our lives are cheap." He also backed suggestions from the floor calling for a boycott of Shell and BP refineries.

GroundWork environmental justice group head Bobby Peek pledged R500 from his pocket to start campaign action against Shell and BP at the highest level, including the possibility of legal action.

Sapref officials did not attend the meeting, but in a letter circulated among residents this week, the company admitted that residents near the leak site could be affected by "burning eyes, cough, headache, dizziness and nausea" as a result of petrol fumes.

The company suggested there was no immediate health risk, but some people had been urged to move away "as a precaution".

Sapref acknowledged it could not hope to recover all the underground petrol, as some would bind to the soil, while vapours would continue to escape into the air.

Promises by city health officials to respond to queries were not made by late yesterday.

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