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Environmental expert says UPL Cornubia fire during July unrest was an environmental disaster

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

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

Published Dec 2, 2021


Durban - The South African Human Rights Commission’s investigative hearings into the July 2021 unrest has heard environmental expert evidence that the fire at the United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) warehouse in Cornubia was an environmental disaster.

The fire broke out at the chemical giant’s plant in Cornubia after it was torched during the July unrest, leading to a cocktail of chemical spillage, with the commission on Thursday learning of the impact of the environmental damage on nearby communities, rivers and crops.

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Speaking on the Cornubia fire, Professor Rajan Naidoo, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Occupational and Environmental Health Department and a member of the UPL Cornubia Fire Civil Society Action Group, said the fire and chemical spillage directly affected the environment around the warehouse and it also affected human health.

“The impact on the environment also has consequences on people who may live off that environment, for example fisher folk who do subsistence fishing in the water around the area.

“Those things had to stop, so it affects the livelihoods.

“There’s also issues in terms of human health, there will be effects on health in short term, medium term and long term and it was why we were arguing very strongly that health services be provided for this community,” Naidoo said.

He added that this argument for health services in the community was not just to address the emergency or acute effects, but they required resources to be provided to cater for the community for the longer term effects.

“We argued that such services must be under the jurisdiction of those who are responsible for health services, in this instance local government.

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“What we found very quickly was that in all of these sorts of issues the government agencies don’t have the resources to undertake the necessary investigations, to undertake the necessary remediation action or to undertake the necessary service provision, whether this was health or remediation of the environment,” Naidoo said.

Kwanele Msizazwe, from Blackburn Village informal settlement, which was adversely affected by the UPL fire said that around 80% of the community members of the village had not taken part in the looting and unrest.

The informal settlement, according to Msizazwe, has a population of about 1 000 people made up of around 4 000 households and is fraught with lack of service delivery including illegal connections, just two working toilets out of seven and lack of transport for school going children.

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“I can say 80% of the village was not involved in that (the looting) because every night we used to stand by the entrance which is coming from Cornubia, others were on the other side from Izinga with the residents of Umhlanga, trying to protect the place that feeds us, trying to protect the place that we used to shop to (sic), trying to protect even the people from Blackburn Village not to get hurt.

“It was like a week of standing there, sacrificing, not sleeping until this thing of looting was over, it was like that,” Msizazwe.

When quizzed on the relationship between Blackburn Village and the warehouse in terms of employment opportunities and its importance to the community, Msizazwe said that the warehouse had hardly given the people of the informal settlement opportunities.

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“There were not even 10 and they only came to Blackburn Village when they were already employed by the company, not that the company employed them through Blackburn Village,” Msizazwe said.

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Political Bureau