By Farook Khan and Thabo Masemola.
Environmental Affairs Minister Valli Moosa and KwaZulu-Natal's minister of education, Faith Gasa, say they believe the Sasol Polymers chlorine factory at Umbogintwini, near Durban, should be kept shut.
The two leaders were in Durban on Tuesday night, and met KwaZulu-Natal's environmental affairs minister, Narend Singh, who ordered the shut-down on September 14.
At a meeting of the Isipingo environmental crisis committee, Gasa told parents and other stakeholders that she was behind their call for the plant to remain shut - at least until the community was satisfied that there would be no more leaks.
In an emotional speech, Gasa said children and teachers affected by the chlorine leak would continue to suffer ill effects many years from now.
"While the gas leak would be forgotten, those who are affected will suffer for many more years. Who is going to care then?
"This is a very painful experience for children who are involved. They have fallen ill, they have been hospitalised and they continue to suffer.
"I have come tonight to give you my support. That plant will not open until this community is satisfied."
The committee's chairperson, Nanda Nair, said 50 children had to be taken to hospital. Some were treated and discharged, while two remained in hospital.
He said the community wanted the plant to remain shut until all stakeholders were satisfied it was safe.
"When there is a problem at the plant, all they do is stop work and switch off the tap. Not so for a school . It is not only the physical illness, there are emotional and psychological traumas.
"Study programmes, examinations, tests and people's lives are affected. This is a major crisis. But we are not here to close down big business. We want to work side by side," said Nair.
Preggy Naidoo, vice-chairperson of the Isipingo environmental crisis committee, who attended the meeting where Moosa met local leaders, said the minister believed the community had a crisis and that his support was unstinting.
It is believed that 120 people are employed at the plant and, if it is shut, they could lose their jobs.
At a press briefing earlier in the day, Moosa announced that the national and provincial governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community-based organisations (CBOs) had agreed to work together to fight the high pollution, caused by oil refineries and other chemical plants affecting the Durban south basin.
A sum of R1,7-million had been set aside to conduct a study on ways to combat high levels of air pollution in Durban south.
A special meeting involving representatives of political parties, national and provincial governments, Durban metro, the environmental and health sector and other CBOs, met to consider ways to contain pollution in the area.
"This is a big problem which came out of poor and reckless planning. I cannot see how a chlorine factory could be built next to a school. Frankly, this is not only irrational, but is bordering on criminal," said Moosa.
The Durban basin problem was a complex one, given the economic importance of the area. The government, therefore, had to look at the rehabilitation of the atmosphere so that people would be able to enjoy a clean environment there.
"A clean environment is a fundamental human right which is enshrined in the constitution," said Moosa.
The government also would revise the guidelines on sulphur dioxide and other emissions in built-up areas.
"Past laws were too loose, enabling abuse by chemical-producing companies. We will use World Health Organisation standards to monitor the situation.
"Ffor instance, we have to regulate the burning of dirty fuel and the burning of coal for industrial purposes in populated areas," said Moosa.
Regarding the closure of the chlorine factory last Friday, Moosa promised to listen to the concerns of the affected community as well as labour unions to determine when the factory would re-open.
"We are concerned about this particular plant because of where it is situated and the two leaks which have occurred in a relatively short space of time."
The latest leak happened three weeks after the plant received a clean bill of health from the government after being closed following a leak in May.
More than 200 people, about half of them pupils and teachers from a nearby school, were affected by that leak - most needing medical attention.
Singh hailed the meeting as the "first meeting of minds at three levels of government - local, provincial, and national- NGOs and CBOs", adding that "we have to pool our resources in order to confront the situation".