Environment Department unaware of UPL chemical storage site
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DURBAN - THE Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) revealed it was unaware of the storage of chemicals in close proximity to a natural area – the uMhlanga wetland, surrounding age-old forest and beaches – prior to the fire at the United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) warehouse in Cornubia in July.
DFFE Minister Barbara Creecy said the department was not the competent authority for issuing environmental authorisations for such an activity, and this function lay with the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs.
“As a result of the fire incident, the DFFE received a notification in terms of section 30 of the National Environmental Management Act 1998 (Act No 107 of 1998) and has subsequently, therefore, become aware of the storage facility,” Creecy said.
She was responding in a written parliamentary reply on Friday after Dave Bryant from the DA had asked Creecy whether she had been informed of the storage of dangerous chemicals close to an important natural area; what the full relevant details of the chemicals were that were stored at the facility before it burnt down; and the number of complaints received from the public regarding the impact of the acrid fumes on their health.
Chemicals at the warehouse went up in smoke and water used to battle the blaze ran off into nearby water channels and water sources resulting in dead fish in the uMhlanga lagoon and estuary, while some contaminants reached a freshwater stream, resulting in dead freshwater creatures and vegetation.
In the National Assembly on August 25, Creecy had committed to releasing the findings of the investigation by a multi-departmental investigative team regarding the compliance profile of UPL, by the end of this month. “The drafting of that report is at an advanced stage and the department remains on track to disclose this to the public as the minister committed to doing,” Creecy said.
Speaking on the number of complaints received from the public, Creecy said the DFFE had received 12 complaints through the department’s Environmental Crime and Incidents Hotline before the fire was fully extinguished, but said the majority of the complaints were reported to eThekwini Municipality.
Investigations were ongoing to establish if UPL operations were duly authorised, and within the scope of the permits or authorisations.
The Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (EDTEA) would investigate the environmental impact assessment and related approvals; the Department of Employment and Labour would investigate occupational health and safety compliance; the eThekwini Municipality would investigate the Scheduled Activities permit – zoning fire department approvals may not have been acquired – and building approvals; the Department of Rural Development would investigate the approval of herbicides and pesticides; while the Department of Health would investigate Hazardous Substances Licensing.
Meanwhile, Heinz de Boer, the DA spokesperson on Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs, said EDTEA MEC Ravi Pillay had reneged on his assurances of absolute transparency to KZN’s environmental affairs portfolio committee, with members not having been provided with the report.
On Sunday, EDTEA spokesperson Bheki Mbanjwa said it was disingenuous of De Boer to claim that the department was not being transparent.
“To date, there had been two briefings by national and provincial portfolio committees, and four engagements with civil society formations.
“Mr De Boer deliberately omits mentioning that the department has released reports to the DA following a request for such,” Mbanjwa said.
He said the reports and information on beach closures were also released to civil society and media houses.