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Chemical threat still unclear after Durban fire

File picture: Pexels

File picture: Pexels

Published Aug 15, 2021

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The full impact of a warehouse arson attack during the civil unrest remains unclear and a thorough report into the incident was ordered by the parliamentary environmental committee.

A parliamentary oversight visit was conducted this week where MPS and stakeholders, equipped with gas masks, visited the new 14 000m² United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) warehouse in Cornubia, North of Durban, that was destroyed by looters on July 12.

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Chairperson of the portfolio committee on environment, forestry and fisheries Fikile Xasa said the visit was to ascertain the impact of the social unrest on the environment.

“A thorough report looking into the human impacts, including potential developments of chronic conditions as a result of this incident, must be conducted. The committee also believes that compensation discussions are required for affected community members, and that human and financial resources should be made available to respond to recommendations from ongoing investigations,” he said.

Xasa said they were briefed by the Joint Operation Committee comprising the Department of the Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment; Kwazulu-natal Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs; Department of Water and Sanitation; ethekwini Municipality, as well as the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

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“They told us about the run-off of about 1 600 chemicals which flowed into the umhlanga tributary, umhlanga estuary and on to the beach, leaving a pungent smell, discolouring the water and killing aquatic life. Stakeholders at the meeting requested to work with the Joint Operation Committee. It was resolved that a platform to enable the participation was established, going forward,” Xasa said.

The DA’S Heinz de Boer, a member of the KZN Provincial Legislature along with MPS Thembeka Mchunu from the ANC and the DA’S Cheryl Phillips, Desmond D’sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, and Francine Hattingh, the founder of an informal air quality group in Durban North called for a copy of the full chemical inventory.

No list was released by Jan Botha, the chief executive of UPL SA, who was present at the meeting.

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UPL is the fifth largest agrochemical company in the world.

Msawakhe Mayisela, spokesperson for the ethekwini Municipality, said the river remained unsafe, and beaches remained closed.

“A cocktail of chemicals was released into the water and environmental scientists have taken samples of the water, sediments, aquatic plant and animal life to determine what kind, and the toxicity of the chemicals in the water,” he said.

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Mayisela said the warning and temporary closure of beaches would remain until the threat had abated. Results of samples taken were due back from labs in the coming week.

Speaking on behalf of the UPL, Craig Dodds from Corporate Image, said reports suggested multiple fires were set, engulfing the warehouse in its entirety and resulting in the roof collapsing.

“When they eventually attended to the fire, it was so advanced and in places covered by so much rubble and sheet metal, it took several days to access certain areas and extinguish the smouldering debris. Many water-based products were atomised during the blaze, creating a dense plume,” he said.

Dodds said due to the significant volume of water used to extinguish the fire, and due to the delayed action of the spill response cleaning services amid the ongoing unrest, unvapourised products and water from the fire operations overwhelmed the containment system and escaped into the environment.

NGO group Coastwatch KZN has called the chemical spill a disaster, and said it served as a warning that environmental legislation must be strictly applied, and the activities and products of companies more closely scrutinised.

Sunday Tribune

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