UPL spill-hit beaches still off-limits, company spends over R177m on clean-up
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DURBAN - BEACHES that were closed after the United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) warehouse fire which resulted in a chemical spill when firefighters battled the blaze, remain closed while the eThekwini Municipality awaits the final and signed off report from UPL specialists.
These are all beaches north of the Umgeni River up to Salt Rock.
The beaches have been closed since July after the contamination of the Ohlange River and Umhlanga lagoon.
The municipality issued an update on the beach closures on Saturday, its second announcement in two days.
Municipality spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela had also referred to the levels of E coli at Addington, South and uShaka beaches, saying it had improved and were, therefore, safe for recreational activities such as bathing.
This was in reference to a sewage problem which the Independent on Saturday had reported on for the past two weeks.
On Sunday, DA KwaZulu-Natal spokesperson on Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (Edtea), Heinz de Boer, said after decades of warning, the stink of uncontrolled environmental pollution now stands to decimate the already ailing KZN beach tourism industry.
De Boer said the closure of beaches was in part due to sewage spills and also due to the provincial government’s failure to call for some beaches to be reopened following the UPL arson attack and subsequent chemical spill.
“DA investigations have revealed that specialist reports – in possession of Edtea and the eThekwini Municipality – point to the fact that some beaches are now safe for opening,” De Boer said.
“Yet government leaders, who are expected to protect the interests of the public and economy, have yet to make these critical decisions. The tourism sector will continue to suffer for as long as government dilly-dallies on the matter.”
In response, EDTEA spokesperson Bheki Mbanjwa said the municipality was the competent authority in beach management.
“While it is true that a report from specialists appointed by UPL has been received, members of the Joint Operations Committee found the report lacking in some aspects. The eThekwini Municipality will make the final decision on the opening of the beaches affected by the UPL incident. It is within the municipality’s right to subject the final report to peer-review once that has been received,” Mbanjwa said.
EDTEA urged De Boer not to allow himself to be part of efforts seeking to pressure authorities into making premature and irresponsible decisions.
“It must be noted that De Boer was among those who were questioning the credibility of UPL-appointed specialists.”
Mbanjwa said beaches closed as a result of a sewage spill. North, Bay of Plenty and Blue Lagoon beaches were reopened on Sunday. The municipality also said they were working on fixing the sewer pump station.
“This closure of beaches is a matter concerning public health and it would therefore be irresponsible to make such an important decision on the basis of an incomplete report,” Mbanjwa said.
“We recognize the impact that the closure of beaches is having on businesses, however, we believe that this matter requires caution as opening beaches prematurely could have undesired results. This is a matter that has to be approached with extreme caution.”
ActionSA’s eThekwini mayoral candidate Dr Makhosi Khoza said: “The present situation in eThekwini is a result of the mismanagement of infrastructure maintenance and unmanaged urban migration; unlawful immigration into the city continues to go unattended, adding to resource and infrastructure constraints.”
Last Thursday, the municipality had announced that all beaches north of the Umgeni River up to Salt Rock remained closed and recreational activities were still prohibited until the water quality had been determined as safe and official communication from the municipality had been issued.
“At this point in time, eThekwini is awaiting the final and signed-off report from UPL’s specialists. This requirement came out of a workshop with UPL and their specialists on September 8, 2021. The submissions received prior to this workshop were inadequate. They did not reference the spill or site in question and were riddled with errors about the concentrations of toxins. In some cases, the submissions were unsigned and as a result, they were unacceptable and rejected on that basis. A consolidated report is expected early next week after which an independent peer-review process will take place,” Mayisela said.
“The final report on beaches opening will be made available to the public at the same time it is sent for peer-review.”
Earlier that day, UPL SA commercial director Jan Botha said a report by independent specialists recommended that all beaches were safe to be reopened.
Botha said UPL provided the municipality with a written report from independent specialists on the results of a chemical analysis of the beaches and seawater conducted over the past few weeks, with the last samples taken on September 8.
He said the specialists concluded that the beaches and ocean outside a 1km exclusion zone, north, south and east of the mouth pose an extremely low chemical risk to the public regardless of whether the estuary mouth is open or closed.
“These findings follow an extensive clean-up operation that has been conducted by UPL over the past 10 weeks that has already cost the company just over R177 million,” Botha said.
“UPL has spared no expense in responding to the damage caused by the recent violent looting which led to a fire at its warehouse facility in Cornubia.”
Meanwhile, the final report on the UPL warehouse fire is expected to be made public this week.