I'm sorry, says oil refinery chief

Sapref refinery chief Richard Parkes has been invited to move his family into Wentworth, Durban, and live among the people whose neighbourhood was polluted with nearly a million litres of Sapref petrol.

So far, five families have been advised by Sapref and the city health department to leave their homes as a health precaution because of high levels of airborne benzene.

Benzene, a constituent of petrol, can cause leukaemia (blood cancer) if people are exposed to it at relatively low levels over a prolonged period.

Addressing a public meeting at Dirkie Uys High School on Tuesday night, Parkes apologised to residents and expressed his "bitter disappointment" over the company's petrol pipeline failure.

He also admitted that the company had made a mistake in earlier estimates on the amount of petrol which leaked from a rust hole in one of its pipelines more than three months ago.

Sapref now believes that about 950 000 litres of petrol leaked from the pipe, considerably more than the initial estimate of 500 000 to 750 000 litres.

"This may sound hollow to you in the light of what has happened, but I can't tell you just how much I regret having to stand here in front of you... because we really do care about our impacts on the environment and community."

But Dean Bezuidenhout, a father of three young children living near the leak, said fumes were still coming out of a stormwater drain next to his front door.

He said his whole family had moved into a single room near the back of the house to escape overnight exposure to petrol fumes in their front bedroom, adding that his wife had developed headaches and nausea in recent weeks, while the asthma and eczema of his six-year-old son had worsened.

"Would you come and live here with your children?" asked Bezuidenhout.

Parkes said he would, provided benzene readings remained at "healthy" levels. He added that Sapref would take action if it considered people's lives were at risk.

Dr Willie van Niekerk, the Pretoria medical toxicologist who earlier recommended evacuation of certain families as a precautionary measure, told the residents there was no doubt that exposure to benzene caused leukaemia - although the precise dosage levels and exposure duration needed to trigger the disease was not clear.

He also said there was evidence to suggest that children could be more at risk of developing leukaemia compared with adults.

Sapref representatives also faced a barrage of questions from residents who complained about declining property values and mounting medical bills for headaches and respiratory illnesses.

Parkes said the company would consider all medical bills and other out-of-pocket claims "on merit" and would install monitoring machines for anyone who wished this.

But at least two residents complained that they made such requests several weeks ago and were still waiting for Sapref to respond.

Bobby Peek, head of the "groundWork" watchdog group, said he believed Sapref and the city health department should be taking a more precautionary approach by offering to relocate any families concerned about their health until benzene levels had stabilised.

So far, Sapref has sucked up and recovered about 263 000 litres of underground petrol via a network of almost 500 wells. The total volume of leaked fuel would fill the petrol tanks of at least 17 000 cars.

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