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UPL provides some answers after toxic warehouse fire

THE UPL warehouse that burned to the ground during last month’s week-long unrest. | Tumi Pakkies African News Agency (ANA)

THE UPL warehouse that burned to the ground during last month’s week-long unrest. | Tumi Pakkies African News Agency (ANA)

Published Aug 25, 2021

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DURBAN - UNITED Phosphorus Limited (UPL) has responded to almost 30 questions it could not respond to when the national parliamentary portfolio committee on Environment, Forestry and Fisheries conducted an oversight visit in KwaZulu-Natal two weeks ago.

The questions arose when chief executive Jan Botha made his presentation to the committee, but time constraints prevented him from responding.

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The company said areas close to the warehouse were inhabitable and a human health assessment was being conducted by Apex Environmental.

UPL said they were currently engaged in clean-up operations. The company received qualitative test results from local and overseas laboratories. The impact reports, which would describe the impacts and explain the proposed targeted remediation measures, should be completed shortly.

“Interim clean-up and containment measures and certain bio-remediants are being used in a way that will limit any negative effects on areas not affected by the spill. Once a clearer picture emerges about the precise chemicals of concern, the remediation measures will be more targeted,” UPL said.

It confirmed that it had public liability insurance cover in place. However, these details were a private, commercial matter between the insurer and UPL, it said. In addition, the air quality report would be completed on September 10.

UPL also has an Environmental Management Plan, but due to the unrest emergency providers were unable to obtain timely access to the premises.

The company said it was logging and responding to complaints. It established a complaints process, had been engaging affected stakeholders, had issued early public notices regarding the smoke from the fire, and had worked with the authorities to issue a variety of public warnings.

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“UPL is working with a private specialist health firm to establish the health and other impacts the fire has had on affected communities. It has set up a complaints process and is working closely with the city’s Health Unit,” UPL said.

During Tuesday’s provincial portfolio committee meeting on Conservation and Environmental Affairs, Ravi Pillay, the MEC for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (Edtea), said there was no holding back of information and their legal adviser had signed off on correspondence to South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA).

The alliance received feedback, a list of chemicals and a copy of a detailed directive.

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Committee chairperson Sithembiso Mshengu asked Pillay to provide the preliminary report and chemicals list.

In a statement, De Boer said Pillay continued to play hide and seek on the matter which was evident in the meeting when he chose to adopt a legal and cautious line of defence.

“Considering that toxic plumes of smoke wafted over dozens of communities, rivers, dams, drinking water catchment areas and agriculture for days on end, provincial government should never have had to be strong-armed into releasing information on the matter.”

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De Boer said what was worse was that provincial authorities had an inventory of the chemicals stored in the UPL facility.

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