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UPL hits back at detractors over July unrest attack

A fire at the United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) warehouse in Cornubia during the July resulted in a chemical spill. Picture: Supplied.

A fire at the United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) warehouse in Cornubia during the July resulted in a chemical spill. Picture: Supplied.

Published Jan 25, 2022


By Japhet Ncube

The opinion piece “Ecological despair is beginning to fuel society’s anger” (IOL, 15 January 2022) contains a number of inaccuracies about UPL South Africa (Pty) Ltd in relation to the arson attack on its leased warehouse in Cornubia in July last year and the response since to contain the fallout of the attack.

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The article by local activists Desmond D’Sa and Patrick Bond relies, unfortunately, on highly emotive, and even defamatory, assertations that do not have a basis in fact. Unfortunately, for those living in the communities impacted by the arson attack and related spill, these unfounded assertions could cause unnecessary significant distress and fear. It is therefore imperative that the real facts are put on record.

UPL has been engaged in extensive clean up and rehabilitation efforts following the arson attack on its leased Cornubia warehouse on the 12th of July 2021, during the widespread violence and looting that broke out in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

The leased warehouse was equipped with fire prevention systems. Unfortunately, due to the complete breakdown of law and order in the area, emergency services and spills teams were unable to respond (due to ongoing gun violence at them time) to the fire immediately, which resulted in the chemical spill. UPL, however, despatched the first environmental consultants and clean-up teams the day after the attack on 13 July 2021 – as soon as it was safe to get to the site.

Since then over R300 million has been spent on a comprehensive clean up and rehabilitation operation in the area. The inflammatory assertion that the ‘toxic stew’ may take decades to be ‘absorbed’ is stated with no actual basis or evidence and is a clear use of purposefully evocative language to describe a state of affairs which does not exist. In actuality, UPL’s team of independent consultants have led a clean-up process to remove the vast majority of spill contaminants from the impacted area. Affected sediment and water have been captured and safely removed using a complex system of control dams and weirs, among other initiatives.

The authors also make claims regarding how UPL has managed the disposal of this waste that have zero basis in fact. UPL have spent a significant amount of money on the responsible disposal of impacted sediment and water, safely, and in line with international best practice. UPL have received permission from the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) to truck the contaminated materials to accredited class A hazardous waste landfills which it has done.

Again, when talking about the human health impact, highly emotive language is used by the D’Sa and Bond – seemingly to create a sense of fear among residents – but again without basis in actual fact (as the authors themselves recognise in their article). What they also fail to mention is the extensive and continuing human health monitoring work that has been undertaken by UPL, at significant cost, which includes funding an occupational health clinic to monitor public health following the arson attack. While the claim is made with no basis, the current evidence in fact shows no support for serious health impacts over the short to long term. It should also be noted that, thankfully, no deaths have been reported due to the arson attack and subsequent spill. However, UPL will continue with, human health monitoring initiatives – including among others its complaint register and the occupational health clinic.

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The inference that UPL is a ‘filthy firm’, and that in some way, received incentives for investment in relation to its operation in Cornubia are also made without a shred of evidence and expose the author’s disinterest in providing reliable information and credible analysis. The facts are that UPL was simply a tenant of a pre-existing warehouse in a development which it has no investment or interests in.

Furthermore, Minister of the DFFE, Barbara Creecy, has not laid criminal charges against UPL as claimed but rather her department undertook a preliminary investigation which included UPL, Tongaat Hulett, the Fotress REIT group and the eThekwini Municipality.

The majority of the latter half of the piece focuses on the authors’ frustrations with government and its policy – but, unfortunately, the untrue inferences made in the beginning of the piece serve to conflate and lump in the impact of the arson attack and UPL in general, with these frustrations. As a result UPL is being scapegoated largely for government failures.

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UPL has taken every reasonable measure to ensure both transparency as well as a scientifically sound and best-practice-based clean-up and rehabilitation effort of the affected areas in line with its commitment to being a responsible corporate citizen.

During the first two and a half months following the attack there were approximately 130 people working at the spill site 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Teams of experts are continuing their work in the impacted area.

Encouragingly, because of these efforts, the independent specialist team of aquatic ecologists appointed by UPL, are starting to see animal and plant life returning to some of the most impacted reaches of the river system.  In some sections, basic life forms, bacteria and algae, and even frogs’ eggs and tadpoles are starting to recolonise and take up residence.  The specialist team has also begun the revegetation process.

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Not only has UPL taken every effort to respond to the impact of the arson related spill, it has cooperated and shared information with government since the 13th of July – the day after the arson attack on the evening of the 12 July. It has since then been in constant engagement with the authorities regarding the containment and clean-up of the spill, and in devising a strategy for monitoring its effects. It has also provided government with a full list of the chemicals stored in the warehouse. Section 30 of NEMA, which sets out a statutory process for dealing with emergency situations such as this, has been invoked and is being followed under the guidance of UPL’s experts and all of the relevant government departments.

UPL is pleased that the immense co-ordinated effort has already borne fruit, and is confident that through the remediation work planned for the coming months, that the ecological systems surrounding the warehouse site will continue to recover and steadily be restored to full health.

*Ncube is spokesperson for UPL South Africa


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