The Engen refinery at the border of Merewent and Bluff, south of Durban. Picture: Merebank Residents Association
The Engen refinery at the border of Merewent and Bluff, south of Durban. Picture: Merebank Residents Association

’We can’t breathe’ - south Durban community tells of struggle after gas leak at oil refinery

By Zainul Dawood Time of article published Jul 29, 2020

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Durban - Merewent residents told of their struggles to breathe and the measures they took to avoid inhaling toxic fumes after a gas leak at the Engen Oil Refinery, south of Durban this week.

Desmond D’Sa spokesperson of South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) said on Wednesday that residents in Merewent, Merebank and Wentworth were still complaining of the after effects of the nauseating smell. D

'sa said chemical Methyl Mercaptan was released into the air.

Engen spokesperson Gavin Smith said that at approximately 10.15 on Monday night a small amount of Mercaptan was leaked from the Engen Refinery.

He said the release was detected immediately and isolated. He said an investigation is in progress to determine the cause. The relevant authorities have been informed.

Smith explained that Mercaptan, also known as Methanethiol, is a pungent-smelling chemical injected into odourless gas as a safety mechanism to make the gas detectable. It is commonly found in LPG, the gas used as a fuel for home cooking and heating.

“Engen would like to assure the local community that the small amount released is not harmful. We wish to apologise sincerely for any anxiety that the odour caused. Engen invites members of the community to contact the Refinery’s 24-hour toll free number 0800 330 099 for further information,"he said.

Sammy Sayed the chairperson of the Merebank Residents Association (MRA) said that last week they had similar complaints from residents. Sayed said he contacted the public relations department and set up a meeting with Engen management to follow up the complaint.

"The meeting had to be postponed because the complainant's daughter was diagnosed with Covid-19. Residents are encouraged to contact the MRA on all issues affecting the community,"he said.

A survey was done on a Merewent WhatsApp group by the Daily News asking residents their account of how they dealt with the gas leak.

Gloria Naidoo said, "We experienced the most terrible odour. So strong that we were coughing and felt shortness of breath.The smell was unbearable and left us feeling dizzy and gasping for breath."

A teacher from Dinpaur Road Trusha Reddy said she was a chronic asthmatic patient and had to take her inhaler throughout the night. She tried lighting incense sticks to help get rid of the smell.

Tracey Willams said she visited the local doctor feeling nauseous and with head pains.She was nebulized and given a strong antibiotic.

Sunitha said the smell lingered in the air until Tuesday afternoon.

Jillandra Williams of Nasik Road said her family panicked.She said, "We covered our mouths and noses with a cloth. We closed all windows and doors."

Sugan Reddy of Merewent placed covers on all his air vents to prevent the smell from coming into his home. It did not help and he was not able to sleep well.

Rajesh Hemraj whose front door is in line with the refinery said his family suffocated. He lit incense sticks and put his air-con on to manage the smell.

"I live for more than 40 years and it's an ongoing issue with the refinery,"he said.

Christine Pather from Lakhimpur Road said: “I became very ill last night with headaches, nausea and difficulty breathing. We had to close all windows and doors and turn on the air con but it gave us little relief. I'm still experiencing some of the symptoms. This is very irresponsible of the guilty party. We are actually tired of incidents of this nature,"Pather said.

Dolly Kistnasami of Parbhani Road said her granddaughter had to be given allergex for her allergies.

Preshanta Raju said he used fragranced air fresheners and eventually put the air con on to contain the smell.

"I had difficulty breathing and both my sons developed headaches. I still have lingering headaches," Raju said.

Anash Singh said his fruit and vegetable home business which he started after being retrenched a few years ago has seen a decline in customers, all of which don't want to stop and purchase their veggies due to the nauseating smell daily.

Singh said his business has suffered loss due to this.

Kuben Naicker of Gadwal Road said, "The smell was terrible.... I was gagging for breath...I had to cover myself under the duvet... But still terrible to breath. Today I have a cracking continuous headache...we thought we were going to die."

Rocky Pather who lives 500 meters away from the refinery said he was choking

"When I opened the doors it was worse. It lasted for about 30 minutes. Even covering my mouth with a cloth was no help,"Pather said.

Daily News

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