Durban – Residents of a blue-collar neighbourhood in the south of Durban have refused to allow the restart of a chemical factory that emitted noxious fumes into the area and left them with alleged breathing problems, headaches, and rashes.
The residents met outside Safripol's Mobeni plant on Saturday morning to demand explanations for the leak from general manager Anton Booysen and to hand him a list of demands.
Safripol (formerly Hosaf) manufactures and distributes polyethylene terephthalate resin and polyester fibre. It is situated just metres away from a school and homes.
This is reportedly not the first time the factory has emitted fumes due to a leak, but according to residents, the latest incident was “the worst ever”.
The chemical stench was reported as far away as Glenwood and Umbilo to the north, and to Amanzimtoti in the south. The smell was apparently as a result of dowtherm, a compound used in industrial heat transfer systems.
The leak took place at around 3pm on Friday and led to the evacuation of plant employees. But nearby residents appear to have been at the mercy of the stench as it seeped into their homes, allegedly causing breathing difficulties, nausea, headaches, itching eyes, and rashes. Children and the elderly were particularly badly affected, according to residents at the meeting.
One visibly distressed man interrupted the gathering to say that his young child needed medical assistance from the private paramedics hired by the company, who were still stationed in ambulances outside the plant and were providing roving medical services.
Booysen read from the plant’s “material safety data sheet”, which advised washing with water and flushing eyes in the case of a leak.
“Shouldn’t we have that information long before this happened?” asked one man.
Booysen said the chemicals in the emissions were known to cause skin irritation and “may cause” respiratory irritation. The liquid molten products could burn workers inside the factory, he said.
But there were “no long-term negative effects”, and the chemical was not carcinogenic. “It’s uncomfortable, it’s irritating, it’s smelly, depending on the levels."
He said an “unbiased third party” had been contracted to do an analysis of the plant, and the factory had a very good safety record. Once the investigation was concluded, the factory would inform the community, as measures would be introduced “to do things differently”.
Booysen appealed to the community to allow operations to resume. But some residents would have none of it.
Desmond D’Sa, an internationally known activist who lives just across from the plant and heads the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), said Booysen’s statements “undermined a lot of things”.
“If you were able to evacuate your workers, you should have evacuated all of us here,” said D’Sa, to cheers from the crowd.
He said the community wanted a 24-hour clinic established in the area, open seven days a week, manned by doctors and paid for by the factory. “We want proper examinations on our children and each and every one of us.”
This was non-negotiable, he said. D’Sa had worked at the factory in the past.
“We have been breathing this in the whole night... we know that dowtherm has a long-term effect on each and every one of us... don’t come and tell us about jobs; we want you to tell us how we are going to deal with this.”
If the demands were not met, the plant would receive a legal letter on Monday, he said.
“Your company has taken our kids in the past as tog labourers and treated them like sh*t; even now, you still treat them like sh*t. This community has never benefited from your factory.”
The stench had led to schools closing in the area, said D’Sa.
Booysen said the company was taking residents’ concerns “very seriously”.
“I agree that we need to have an emergency evacuation and response for this whole area, not only for the factory. We will put up alarms and ensure we inform the community of every other thing. We will consider all of the other things that have been mentioned and will come back to you.”
Booysen again pleaded for the plant to be reopened, but the community refused, saying he needed to return with written responses to their demands.
“The quicker you come back to us with something in writing, the quicker we will meet and decide that the plant can open,” said D’Sa.
He said resident wanted to see proof that the company had alerted the national department of environmental affairs and the Green Scorpions of the incident.
When African News Agency (ANA) spoke to D’Sa by phone on Saturday afternoon, after the meeting, he confirmed that a mobile clinic had been sent to the area and that several residents had been taken to private hospitals for further care.
African News Agency/ANA