Gas leak leaves Richards Bay gasping

By Tony Carnie Time of article published Apr 4, 2005

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It has been nearly three years since 250 people were left gasping, retching or traumatised in the centre of Richards Bay after a gas leak from the Foskor fertiliser factory.

Local resident Ruth Dube, 45, who was treated in hospital for lung injuries immediately after the gassing, died nine months after a cloud of sulphur gas poured from the stacks of the state-owned factory during the afternoon rush-hour of July 15, 2002.

Her friend and co-worker, 37-year-old Mumsy Sibiya, has lost 60 percent of her lung capacity, according to Foskor-contracted physician Mark Baleta. Several other residents have also complained of damage to their health and respiratory systems.

Though Foskor fired a plant supervisor after a disciplinary hearing, neither the company, its directors nor managers have been fined by environmental health regulators.

Nor has the company been taken to court to face prosecution, despite a recommendation to that effect by Dr Timothy Fasheun, a senior KwaZulu-Natal government official who chaired a government panel of investigation into the Foskor pollution incident.

A post-mortem investigation was conducted on Dube after her death in March 2003, but, two years later, the docket remains unfinalised on the desk of Inspector A M Mtshali of the Richards Bay SA Police Service.

Nor, it seems, have any of the victims been compensated for damages by the company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Industrial Development Corporation.

The Mercury's Empangeni/Richards Bay bureau chief, Chris Jenkins, has documented complaints from several other residents who said their health was damaged by the Foskor gas plume.

They include Val Wilson, an Empangeni church worker who lives in Richards Bay. She said her health had never been the same since that "terrifying day".

Another resident, Mandy Gibson, said she had had to give up long-distance running after the gas release, while Mike Rudling of Empangeni said he suffered recurring chest problems.

According to the minutes of the government panel of investigation, local resident Braam Rossouw had to visit a specialist in Durban because of breathing problems.

The minutes also mention "a Mrs Phumzile" who was treated after the gassing and claimed she was now unable to work because she was ill and kept having to take time off work.

A Foskor spokesperson said at the weekend that it had paid for the medical treatment and counselling costs of 249 people affected by the gas leak.

However, it did not respond to questions on whether it would make cash compensation payments to Dube's dependants, to Sibiya or any other victims. It also failed to respond to questions on whether it had paid any punitive fines to the state's environmental custodians.

Fasheun, the head of pollution control for the KwaZulu-Natal government, said he thought it unlikely that Foskor would be fined because of the "shortcomings" of current air pollution legislation, but he suggested that any further administrative sanction lay with "the politicians".

Asked which politicians he was referring to, Fasheun said that "technically", it was a matter for provincial Environment Minister Gabriel Ndabandaba or national Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk to consider.

Asked whether the responsibility did not in fact lie with him, Fasheun said a distinction had to be drawn between his regular function as KwaZulu-Natal head of pollution control and his temporary function as chairman of the government panel which recommended the prosecution of Foskor in September 2002.

If a political decision was taken now to prosecute the company under any applicable legislation, he could consider legal remedies in his capacity as head of pollution control for KwaZulu-Natal.

Fasheun noted that the old Air Pollution Prevention Act of 1965 was superseded last month by the new Air Quality Act, which provided for fines of up to 10 years in jail - while the maximum fine under the old legislation was unlikely to have exceeded R3 000.

"We knew the shortcomings of going to court, so we decided to rather expend our energy making recommendations on how to prevent a repetition (of the Foskor leak)."

Fasheun was not willing to discuss the results of the state pathologist's post-mortem inspection of Dube, but confirmed that officials from his department had opened a case against Foskor and provided relevant material to the police.

Asked why it was taking so long for police to finalise the inquest docket, Fasheun said his department surmised that the police were giving priority to other cases such as murder and rape.

He said Mtshali had assured his officials that he was still working on the inquest docket - but senior officials from the national department of environment affairs in Pretoria had now been asked to "follow up the case".

"I understand that they are going to visit Richards Bay in the next week or two and that they have also spoken to Inspector Mtshali."

Mtshali said on Friday that there was still one medical report outstanding and he expected to finalise the docket "very soon".

The company said it had implemented all recommendations made by Fasheun's investigation panel and "as part of its social responsibility, Foskor paid for all costs associated with medical treatment and counselling for those affected and continues to pay for the treatment of the one person still under treatment".

Foskor official Neel Naidoo also told a monitoring committee meeting last year that a plant supervisor had been fired for "gross negligence" after he allegedly failed to follow correct procedures during a plant shutdown, which led to the gas leak.

However, prominent Richards Bay resident Sandy Camminga said she was concerned that Foskor had targeted a single individual for retribution rather than admitting a company failure.

Naidoo responded that the supervisor had not been turned into a scapegoat, and that Foskor now had a culture of "zero tolerance" over environmental safety issues.

But for Mumsy Sibiya, life is unlikely to return to what it was before the gas cloud enveloped her in 2002.

Sibiya said that although Foskor paid for her daily respiratory medication and monthly medical check-ups, she was unable to work and had left her 17-year-old daughter in the care of her sister.

Sibiya, who previously worked as a cook at the Seafarers' Club, is now unemployed and living in the home of the Reverend Dave Doveton and his wife Yvonne, at St Andrews Church in Meerensee.

She said she had received no compensation from Foskor.

"Ruth also had two children. I spoke to her sister last year and they had not been compensated either."

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