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By Alan Cooper
Local Government Reporter
HONESTY really is the best policy. Ask Mr Richard Parkes, managing director of South African Petroleum Refineries (Sapref).
At the weekend he was forced to confess what local residents had long charged - that the company's giant south-Durban refinery had for years been under-reporting the quantities of noxious sulphur dioxide it had been pumping into the atmosphere.
Yesterday, instead of rapping the company over the knuckles for the blunder, Durban metro council leaders congratulated Sapref for its transparency and held it up as an example to other businesses.
Mrs Margaret Winter, who chairs the metro executive committee (exco), said that while the council "notes with concern" the error, it welcomed the transparency with which Sapref had dealt with the matter.
"Their approach shows a commitment to corporate governance which sets a standard for businesses in the region."
On Friday, Parkes was insistent that the mistake had not posed a health risk to residents of surrounding Merebank, Wentworth and the Bluff, even though in some instances the readings reported were half the real levels of sulphur dioxide being released into the atmosphere.
He told the press conference that his company had firmly believed that it had been reducing its sulphur dioxide emissions by 14 tons a day over the past five years.
This misconception had prompted it to predict confidently in 1997 that it would reduce emissions of the gas to an average of 29 tons a day, a target it appeared to have achieved by last year.
But that was before the findings of an 11-month internal investigation were revealed. The probe, commissioned after pressure from key shareholders Shell and BP, and using specialist monitoring equipment from Europe, painted a very different picture.
Instead of the reported figure of 29 tons a day, the refinery was actually emitting 41 from its soaring, 100-metre smokestacks.
"We are now using more accurate formulae to calculate the amounts of sulphur dioxide released to the atmosphere."
While the target of 29 tons was now unrealistic, new environmental measures, costing anywhere between R1-million and R10-million depending on market conditions, would reduce the emissions from 41 to 31 tons a day, Parkes said.
Winter welcomed this commitment, saying the council would work with Sapref and other stakeholders to ensure that acceptable ground level measuring systems were in place in the area and to monitor future reporting on sulphur dioxide emissions.