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Government demands answers from Engen two months after explosion

The explosion that took place at Engen Refinery. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo/ African News Agency (ANA)

The explosion that took place at Engen Refinery. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo/ African News Agency (ANA)

Published Feb 5, 2021


Durban - The KwaZulu-Natal government is threatening to use more enforcement actions to force Engen refinery to provide adequate answers to the cause of the explosion that ripped through its Durban south refinery.

Two months after the Engen explosion rocked Durban, the Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (Edtea), revealed that the refinery was yet to provide a plausible explanation as to what might have triggered the explosion. The explosion left six people injured and several more were displaced.

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The department said it found Engen’s response woefully inadequate, warning that it was considering taking further enforcement actions against the company.

The committee on Environmental Affairs, speaking during a committee meeting this week, said it had issued the company with a directive to give more details on the explosion.

Speaking to The Mercury yesterday, environmental organisations said it was not a surprise that Engen has failed to adequately explain the source of the explosion, adding that the company was never going to incriminate itself if it was at fault.

They also raised concerns that the community members, who were most affected by the explosion, were not briefed on the company’s response to the government.

The refinery, which was built at around 1960, could move from its current location and the facility could be turned into a storage space for Engen.

The national portfolio committee on Environmental Affairs was expected to conduct a site visit of the refinery this week.

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Briefing the provincial Environmental Affairs Committee on the progress, Edtea official and director for the south region Sabelo Ngcobo said while Engen had complied with the requirements in terms of the Emergency Incident Report, “the content is not satisfactory.”

“The report has been submitted, however, it is inconclusive on the cause of the incident. Engen has informed the Department that further investigations are being undertaken in order to determine the root cause of the incident,” he said

“The Department is considering further enforcement action against Engen in this regard,” said Ngcobo.

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It was not immediately clear what the shortcomings were in the report. The department said the six months of maintenance records were submitted but they did not shed any light on the cause of the incident.

The department expressed relief that air quality reports do not show excessive toxins in the air, as that could present another danger to the residents living there. Readings at the stations showed no excesses. Ngcobo said air pollution was one of the complex issues between industries and communities, due to the effects on health and respiratory conditions of inhabitants.

On the day of the explosion, Ngcobo said an “act of God” prevented the devastation that would have occurred if people inhaled the toxic fumes that were released into the air.

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“Act of God during the incident –meteorological conditions in favour of the adjacent communities around the plume were carried up and dispersed into the upper atmosphere due to the prevailing South Westerly winds,” he said.

The department said Engen had been ordered to provide several reports, including a toxicological assessment to determine the exposure of potential risk to workers and the surrounding communities. Engen did not respond to requests for comment.

South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) coordinator Desmond D’Sa said there was a need for a public inquiry into the matter that would allow those living in the area to speak.

“They (Engen) are not releasing any information. We wrote to them in December and, to date, we have not received anything.”

Bobby Peak, of Groundwork, also said Engen was not going to incriminate itself. “It is not surprising that the report is meaningless, the company is not going to incriminate itself and say this happened because we did not do proper maintenance or have the staff.

He said to get to the bottom of the matter, there needs to be a multi-stakeholder independent investigation that involves the residents that were most affected.

DA committee member Heinz De Boer said it was important to look at the economic impact and the environmental impact the refinery has on the community.

“The refinery should never have been placed there or the houses should never have been built so close to the refinery, and that is the legacy of apartheid type planning unfortunately. We, as the committee, are not happy with the response Engen has given regarding the latest fire,” he said.

MF committee member Shameen Thakur Rajbansi said the department should do all it can to protect the community that live close to the refinery.

The Mercury

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