Picture: Ray de Vries
As a major KwaZulu-Natal river turned into a cauldron of dying fish this week, Willowton Oil, the company responsible for the pollution incident, has been called in to set up a disaster fund.

The ecological disaster - one of the worst of its kind to have happened in the province - began on Tuesday when about 1600 cubic metres (1.6 million litres) of fatty oils and caustic soda poured out of the Pietermaritzburg factory into the Msundusi River, just below the N3. The toxic mix soon reached as far as Cato Ridge and the Umgeni River, which flows into Inanda Dam.

Caustic soda combined with fatty oils becomes soapy, making a river clean-up exceptionally difficult.

One of South Africa’s leading water specialists, Dr Anthony Turton from the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of Free State, said if the pollution had spread all the way down to Inanda Dam, the clean-up could take several years.

Another leading environmental consultant and river specialist, Pandora Long agreed. She said she doubted that Willowton and government authorities would be able to address the massive pollution without significant help.

“Willowton should be setting up a disaster fund and mobilising the public and business community to assist,” said Long.

In a statement, Willowton said it was doing everything possible to remediate the affected environment.

This included the appointment of emergency response teams SpillTech and Drizit.

The company said a vegetable oil storage tank had collapsed on Tuesday and brought down a tank of caustic soda used to make laundry soap.

Turton said the fact that two fluids were involved in the spill suggested “an industrial accident of a significant scale” that could have been avoided.

“This incident provides evidence of failure of the regulatory process.”

The KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs, Nomusa Dube-Ncube, said an investigation was under way. Appropriate action would be taken if there had been negligence, she said.

In the meantime, photos and video footage of countless dead fish floating in Msunduzi and Umgeni rivers have gone viral on social media.

This includes barbel gasping for air as they try to climb out the water onto river banks.

Fearing the risk to human health, the Msunduzi and eThekwini municipalities have warned people to stay away from the Msunduzi and Umgeni rivers, avoid using water from Inanda Dam and not let livestock drink contaminated water.

Willowton’s marketing director Peter Swaiden said Gift of the Givers was already helping with relief efforts by providing water to affected communities, starting in the KwaXimba area on Saturday

He said local authorities simply did not have the reach and manpower to “get out there”. www.rovingreporters.co.za

Sunday Tribune