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Call for in-depth report and compensation after chemical warehouse fire

Part of the UPL warehouse that was burned down by looters during civil unrest last month. I Tumi Pakkies/African News Agency(ANA)

Part of the UPL warehouse that was burned down by looters during civil unrest last month. I Tumi Pakkies/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Aug 13, 2021

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THE national Parliamentary portfolio committee on Environment, Forestry and Fisheries said it was concerned about the impact on people living around the United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) warehouse in Cornubia, north of Durban.

The committee had been on a fact-finding oversight visit in KwaZulu-Natal on Wednesday after the warehouse was allegedly looted and set alight during civil unrest in KZN last month.

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The committee visited the UPL warehouse, Blackburn Village informal settlement and Ohlanga River.

Workers at the warehouse and river were wearing full protective coveralls, including special face masks. A thick black oily substance could be seen in a stream in the informal settlement.

During a committee meeting, the committee was briefed by the Joint Operation Committee (Department of the Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), the provincial Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (EDTEA), the Department of Water and Sanitation, eThekwini Municipality and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife), while community members spoke about the effects which included shortness of breath, intermittent asthma, polluted irrigation water for vegetable gardens and the closure of schools.

The committee was briefed on the run-off of a cocktail of 1 600 chemicals which flowed into the Mhlanga tributary, Mhlanga estuary and onto the beach, leaving a pungent smell, discolouring the water and killing aquatic life.

Contradictory reports on compliance certificates, the inventory of chemicals and UPL’s cooperation were some of the concerns raised by the committee.

The committee was told that investigations were ongoing and they would receive the reports upon completion.

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National parliamentary portfolio committee on Environment, Forestry and Fisheries chairperson Fikile Xasa spoke to members of the portfolio committee and Joint Operation Committee at one of the sites affected by the warehouse fire. I Tumi Pakkies/African News Agency (ANA)

The committee resolved that there should be a platform to allow the participation of communities, representatives of UPL and stakeholders who were not present on Wednesday, to send their input to the committee in writing.

“The committee also resolved that there should be a thorough report looking into the human impacts, including potential developments of chronic conditions as a result of this incident. The committee also believes that discussions are required on compensation for affected community members and that human and financial resources should be made available to respond to the recommendations from the ongoing investigations,” said committee chairperson Fikile Xasa.

The DA’s EDTEA KZN spokesperson Heinz de Boer said: “I seriously believe the parliamentary portfolio committee should summon the directors of the company (UPL) to parliament and to come and give an explanation as to what was in that warehouse.”

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De Boer also said there needed to be some kind of criminal and civil responsibility to be taken by UPL and its directors.

Since time ran out, questions directed at UPL were not verbally answered but would be sent via written reply.

One of the attendees said the committee had missed its chance because they believed UPL was already lawyered up and that would give them time to formulate their responses while protecting their image.

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Meanwhile, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance wrote an open letter to DFFE and KZN EDTEA demanding transparency and full disclosure of the dangerous chemicals, pesticides or goods stored in vulnerable logistics parks.

“The UPL fire has taught us never to trust ’fast-track’ investment approvals – especially those without any serious environmental oversight. We demand transparency from national, provincial and municipal officials on how such a chemical brew was allowed to be stored near the large residential and educational areas of uMdloti, Blackburn, uMhlanga and Ballito. Residents’ health and wellbeing were affected terribly by the fire, and the trauma felt by nature and wildlife was catastrophic, and is still being felt,” said Dr Desmond D’Sa.

He said what they learnt over the past month was that it was difficult to get basic information about the dangers to communities who live cheek by jowl with hazardous firms, storage sites and transport systems.

He added that the UPL fire was one of many explosions and fires from the chemical and petro-chemical industries experienced across the city over the last few decades. One of them was the Engen fire last year.

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