DURBAN - RESIDENTS were angry and had more questions than answers when Parliament’s portfolio committee on environment, forestry and fisheries on Wednesday conducted an oversight visit in KwaZulu-Natal to assess the environmental impact of the UPL Chemicals warehouse fire in Cornubia, north of Durban.
The warehouse was set alight by looters during the unrest last month.
The committee was there to discover the impact on the environment and the concern was that chemicals had also spilt into the environment resulting in the closure of beaches.
Committee chairperson Fikile Xasa confirmed they were on a fact-finding mission and, along with residents, were concerned about the time frame regarding results from air testing and water samples.
Residents in affected areas and those who suffered respiratory illnesses wanted to know about the long-term effects they might experience as a result of exposure.
Some had experienced dry throats, dry noses, dermal irritation and eye irritation. They left without answers to the health effects they might suffer in the future.
The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) and UPL made presentations on the environmental impact which included inspections, response plans, measures implemented, assessments, reports and more.
In its presentation, DFFE said specialists were working in tandem. They were awaiting freshwater results which would indicate the best possible approach. This would be the same for oceans and coast.
They said reports were coming in regularly and some reports were in progress.
A joint task team would continue to oversee the government’s response. All efforts were in environmental remediation and eliminating human health impacts. The task team is expected to complete its preliminary report by the end of the month and provide preliminary recommendations.
The government specialist team would assist the KZN department in reviewing and analysing the findings and recommendations from UPL specialist service providers.
UPL chief executive Jan Botha said they were concerned about the impact the fire had and described it as a carefully orchestrated break-in, looting and multiple-point fire.
Botha said it was particularly unfortunate that the incident happened in an economic environment needing foreign investment.
He said that at this stage UPL was committed to South Africa and their first priority was containment and a clean-up. His presentation revealed that the warehouse started operating on April 1 this year and they stored 440 agricultural chemicals, which were largely water-based agricultural products.
The company made a revenue of about 100 million USD in South Africa and 140 million USD in Southern Africa.
DA KZN spokesperson on Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs Heinz de Boer described the incident as economic and environmental sabotage.
“I’m leaving here with a great sense of frustration. I think that the pertinent, important questions that were asked were not answered,” said De Boer.
He said people needed to know what the long-term health effects were or could be because the smoke from the fire was not just in the uMhlanga but had dispersed far and wide.
“The company has not come forward and been open with the public about this. It’s simply not good enough. We need to know what was in that warehouse, we need to know quantities and we need to know what the long-term health effects might be,” said De Boer.
He had no doubt there were dangerous substances because it had killed off marine life in the uMhlanga estuary and river.
He said there were also people from upper-uMhlanga who were complaining and their health issues had not yet been documented.
“In the presentation, we even heard that the wind was blowing in a north-easterly direction. What about La Mercy, Seatides, Ballito, Westbrook and oThongathi?
“Communities will probably crowdfund a legal challenge to UPL to compel it to make known to the public what substances were in their warehouse.”
He said an official had indicated that UPL did not have a major hazard installations certificate.
He added that there also needed to be a criminal probe because South Africa had stringent environmental laws.
“Today (yesterday) was actually a waste of time. There is nothing they have told us that we don’t already know.”
Blackburn Village informal settlement community leader Kwanele Msizazwe said the smoke from burning warehouses was terrible and those living with diseases do not know the effects the smoke had on them. He felt only time would tell because they did not have a clinic in the area and health-care facilities were far from them.
Msizazwe said water was also affected which was a concern because children played nearby. “Even though there were warning signs in the community, there was no guarantee that the children would listen.