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The Shell/British Petroleum (Sapref) refinery in Durban has been accused of downplaying the health dangers of dense pollution clouds that polluted the city last month during a power failure.
The local South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) released air pollution sample tests on Tuesday that indicate the presence of at least 28 chemicals, some of which are highly toxic.
Sapref, however, has challenged the test results and pointed to contradictory analysis and readings cited by SDCEA.
The laboratory test results, collected in a budget-version air pollution bucket-tester, suggest high readings of benzene, which can cause cancer if people are exposed to high levels over a prolonged period.
Alliance spokesperson Anna Weekes said other chemicals detected in the vicinity of the refinery during the October 23 power failure included pentane, sulphur dioxide, acetic acid, heptane, cyclohexane, toluene, octane, dimethyl heptene, ethyl benzene, acetamide, xylenes, piperitone, semicarbazone, benzaldehyde, phenol, tridecane, ethanone, dodecane and valencene
The alliance said Sapref had assured them at the time that there was little cause for community concern as emissions were mainly limited to butane and propane.
"It is very serious that Sapref has lied to the community about these results," said Weekes.
The alliance contended that the levels of benzene and phenol were "way above accepted international standards" - a suggestion strongly contested by Sapref.
Sapref chief Richard Parkes said he was taken aback.
"SDCEA's air quality results raise more questions than answers and the end result is to confuse the public. SDCEA concentrate on benzene and phenol in the sample.
"The results they discuss in the text of their statement contradict the readings in the table attached to the statement.
"For example, there is no phenol level in the table compared to their claim of 123 parts per billion.
"Benzene on the other hand is present in the table but not at the same level as discussed in the text. We cannot understand the figures."
"We have no idea where the sample was taken, nor the wind direction at the time, but when SDCEA have provided this information and corrected their figures we will be able to make a more sensible comment."
Parkes repeated the company's position that emissions on the day in questions were mostly propane and butane.
"When we said there was no need for health concerns we meant it.
"The products flared by oil refineries all over the world are very similar, flaring is generally of short duration and we know of no significant health risks anywhere from this source.
"We did not lie when we sought to assure residents that they need not be concerned. This is our genuine belief."
Parkes also said the company had invested over R450-million in environmental improvements since 1993.
Another project was under way to ensure that by next year, sulphur dioxide emissions would have been reduced by 60 percent over the past seven years.