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Did UPL’s pollution control dam burst? KZN Edtea keeping close watch on the impact of the flood damage

A community activist said UPL’s pollution control burst on Monday evening meaning chemical pollutants flowed into the river again. | Picture: Facebook/Pete’s Post

A community activist said UPL’s pollution control burst on Monday evening meaning chemical pollutants flowed into the river again. | Picture: Facebook/Pete’s Post

Published Apr 13, 2022

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Durban - The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (Edtea) has indicated that it will be keeping a close watch on the impact of the flood damage on the UPL Pollution Control Dam (PCD) at the Cornubia site.

After the UPL warehouse in Cornubia went up in flames during July unrest, UPL re-purposed an existing stormwater control dam below the facility into a PCD.

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A fire at the UPL South Africa warehouse in Cornubia during the July resulted in a chemical spill. Picture: Supplied.

In a statement on Tuesday, Edtea said an inter-departmental team made up of Edtea, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, and eThekwini Municipality conducted physical inspections to assess the impact of the overflow of the PCD caused by flooding.

It said, since the incident in July 2021, the PCD has been used to contain contaminated water, which was then pumped out and transported by tankers for safe disposal.

“The department has noted that the last test result on March 29, 2022, revealed a relatively very low level of contamination. Any risk will also be further mitigated by a high dilution factor due to the high volume of floodwaters and further dispersal downstream. The department has been advised by experts that the overflow is therefore not of concern,” the statement read.

Edtea said the interdepartmental team would continue to monitor the situation and have further tests conducted at the PCD as well as downstream up to the estuary and the ocean.

“The public is reminded that the area remains an 'exclusion zone' in force. The zone is one kilometre north and south of the estuary and into the sea is out of bounds for recreation, fishing and marine resource harvesting,” Edtea said.

The UPL chemical factory that burnt down and contaminating the air during the July unrest, water and soil in the surrounding areas such as uMhlanga, Cornubia, Durban North and Blackburn informal settlement. Picture:Tumi Pakkies African News Agency(ANA)

On Facebook, Pete’s Post, a community activist, said UPL had built a dam to store all the “poofy” stuff and the dam burst on Monday night, sending thousands of litres into the uMhlanga River system.

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The activist said hazardous pollution at the UPL Cornubia waterway (leading to uMhlanga estuary) has remained since the explosion in July.

“Unfortunately, this burst its banks around 6pm yesterday (Monday), which means chemical pollutants are flowing into the river and land again,” Pete’s Post read.

The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (Edtea) has indicated that it will be keeping a close watch on the impact of the flood damage on the UPL Pollution Control Dam (PCD) at the Cornubia site. Picture:Tumi Pakkies African News Agency(ANA)

Earlier, UPL South Africa spokesperson Japhet Ncube said it was taking mitigation measures following the overflow of the control dam as a result of unprecedented heavy rains.

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Ncube said UPL appointed independent specialists who have been carefully managing the levels of polluted water in the PCD since then, and despite heavy rains in December and January, the PCD has never overtopped and, pleasingly, the levels of contamination in the water have reduced significantly.

Testing had indicated that the recent levels of metals and contaminants of concern in the PCD were sufficiently low to permit a variety of discharge options, including slow release into the river environment.

He said the PCD had furthermore been fully emptied by tankers in the last month, its sediments removed to landfill and had been fully re-lined.

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“The heavy rains over the weekend and continuing into last night have, however, created an unprecedented volume of stormwater in the PCD catchment, and its levels have rapidly risen from empty to extremely high. In response to this threat, UPL had resumed extraction to tankers and the specialist team implemented systems to reduce the volume of rainwater entering the PCD. Despite these interventions, due to ongoing heavy rainfall, the PCD still overtopped (water flowed over the edge),” Ncube explained.

“UPL’s specialists consider that the stormwater emanating from areas of the catchment at present is in such volumes that residual contaminants, already at low levels, will be extremely diluted. UPL’s consultants have advised that, at those concentrations, they will be of minimal concern. Further, they will be diluted again when they mix with the tributary and river floodwater and ultimately discharge into the sea. Analytical sampling has been undertaken and continues to be undertaken to verify these assessments.”

The UPL South Africa warehouse. Picture: Tumi Pakkies/African News Agency(ANA)

Ncube added that UPL had made significant progress in the clean-up and rehabilitation of the areas impacted by the fire and has spent over R400 million to date.

He said UPL was well advanced with its overall rehabilitation plan and has begun re-vegetation trials on-site. The independent specialists are currently investigating being able to release PCD and other on-site water to the environment, given the current residual levels and on-site clean-up efforts. Ultimately, the rains may, in fact, assist in flushing the entire system. Ongoing testing and analysis by the specialists will be able to ascertain those effects in due course.

“UPL is committed to the completion of all the required clean-up and rehabilitation. It will also continue to monitor the impact of the heavy rains on the system,” Ncube concluded.

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