The spill originated from FMCG firm Willowton Group’s edible oil factory, in Pietermaritzburg, after an incident in the plant resulted in the injury of six workers. They are in a stable condition after being taken to hospital on Tuesday.
However, the pollution has devastated fish and plant life in the river.
Sources alleged that storage units at the factory “exploded” and that there had been a fire, but the firm declined to confirm specific details regarding the nature of the industrial incident.
Willowton Group said in a statement “the incident is currently being investigated to understand the cause”.
“Our current main focus is to ascertain any environmental impact potentially caused, and ensuring the containment and necessary rehabilitation required.
“The immediate on-site response from our teams ensured minimal injuries and those injured were treated on site, before being transported to nearby medical facilities for further treatment and observation,” the company said.
Willowton said a full report and assessment would be made available to all the relevant government departments once the investigation had been completed.
Umgeni Water spokesperson Shami Harichunder said the sluice of Henley Dam had been opened to let water run from around 4pm on Wednesday until 4pm yesterday to flush the spill. He said the dam was 101% full before water was released and was now just 65% full.
“We released water for 24 hours and tomorrow we will have a clear idea of the full impact of the release. Hopefully, the desired effects will have been achieved.
“We are taking samples and, hopefully, by Friday or the day after we will have a clear idea of what the content of the spill was,” Harichunder said.
Msunduzi Municipality spokesperson Thobeka Mafumbatha said the city’s environmental health unit was investigating the incident.
She said the water released from Henley Dam had “significantly improved” the situation and that the river was now “almost visibly clear”, but the damage had been done.
“The ‘substances’ have caused significant impacts on the pH (balance)and biological oxygen demand of the water quality, resulting in fish killed and damage to all flora and fauna that comes into contact with the substances.
“Both Drizit and Spilltech were still busy with clean up and containment operations along the river, and at Willowton Oil Mills premises,” she said.
Mafumbatha said the city’s “green scorpions” were now empowered to enforce national environmental legislation, which provides penalties of a maximum fine of R5million and/or imprisonment for five years for a first offence.
Dusi Canoe Marathon spokesperson Ray de Vries said the incident was the biggest spill in the river in 30 years.
“As far as we can ascertain, there were some storage units that burst or exploded, and fatty oils and caustic soda went into a chute and poured into the Msundusi River, just below the N3. It has absolutely contaminated the river. We expect it to reach Cato Ridge by tonight,” De Vries said.
De Vries said an unconfirmed estimate was that some 1600 cubic meters of pollution had poured into the river.
“The result of the spill will last for years because it is killing the environment along the river.”
De Vries said the Dusi Umgeni Conservancy Trust was investigating.
“They are investigating it thoroughly, as to who is responsible and to make sure that there will be consequences they face so this does not happen again,” he said.