Aftermath of an explosion that took place at the Engen Oil Refinery in Durban in December. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad
Aftermath of an explosion that took place at the Engen Oil Refinery in Durban in December. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad

Durban South residents concerned over traffic,oil spills as Engen announces it will convert to a terminal

By Nadia Khan Time of article published Apr 28, 2021

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Durban - Residents in Merebank and Wentworth had mixed emotions following an announcement that the Engen oil refinery would be converted to a terminal by 2023.

In a statement issued last week, Engen said the decision followed an extensive strategic evaluation of its refining business. It said every facet of the refinery was scrutinised and assessed against market demand, future growth potential, and the ability to contribute sustainably.

Yusa’ Hassan, Engen’s managing director and chief executive, said the strategic assessment found that the Engen refinery was unsustainable in the long term.

“This is primarily due to the challenging refining environment as a result of a global product supply surplus and depressed demand, resulting in low refining margins, and placing the Engen refinery in financial distress,” said Hassan.

“Furthermore, unaffordable capital costs to meet future CF2 (clean fuels two) regulations compliance continues to be a challenge for the long-term sustainability of the refinery.”

Engen said the Refinery to Terminal (RTT) conversion was part of a long-term business sustainability strategy. This would ensure Engen was resilient against future market threats and could respond with agility to new opportunities.

“It also has a knock-on benefit of a reduction in emissions and carbon footprint that will contribute towards Engen’s environmental stewardship commitments. The conversion will also deliver a significant drop in electricity and water consumption, which will mean more electricity and water would be available for under-served households.”

Hassan said the investment in new infrastructure to create a world-class import terminal as well as the repurposing of the refinery site, would generate economic activity in KwaZulu-Natal.

“In the current economic climate, this should contribute not just in terms of capital, but also in terms of job creation and skills transfer, something that will support South Africa’s post-Covid-19 economic recovery.

“The RTT will also strengthen South Africa’s long-term security of fuel supply and contribute to lower road transport emissions, with resultant health benefits, and assist the country to meet its 2027 Green House Gas (GHG) targets.”

In December, six people were reportedly injured after an explosion and fire at the refinery. A flat caught alight and a girl, 11, girl suffered burn wounds to her face and hands. The cause of the explosion and fire is still under investigation and the refinery has been closed since.

While some residents believe the RTT conversion would decrease air pollution, others were concerned about increased traffic and oil spillages.

Elvira Chetty, of Badulla Drive, in Merebank, said she and her family were exposed to excessive air and noise pollution over the years. Chetty and her husband live opposite the refinery, while her parents live nearby.

“Our windows have had an oily residue from the refinery dust and when we return home after a few hours, we feel the denseness in the air quality.”

She said her parents suffered from nasal congestion, which she attributed to emissions from the refinery.

“Once converted to a terminal, there should be some relief in the air quality as the active plants will no longer dispel by-products. But when it becomes a terminal, there will be traffic congestion as the trucks will enter and leave the area.”

Pastor Victor Kupsamy, who lives with his wife and son on Bidar Road, Merebank, said there were gas leaks at the refinery when it was operational and the fumes were unbearable. “Residents with asthma and other respiratory ailments were affected.”

He said he was now concerned about fuel spillage and he feared a second explosion.

Another resident, of Dinapur Road, who declined to be named, said: “If they convert the refinery into a terminal, what will they store here? I am worried about spillage. Previously, these spillages on Basil February Road led to accidents and even deaths.”

Andre de Bruin, of Croton Road, in Wentworth, said the refinery did not provide enough employment for the community. He said the land should instead be used for housing.

“You have third and fourth generations in Wentworth living in one-bedroom flats. Engen should be moved and the government should look at building homes, which would benefit the community.”

Clint Leverton, of Ogle Road, in Wentworth, said it was a win-lose situation.

“We have dealt with air and noise pollution for years. The health of those people living near the refinery was gravely impacted by the toxic fumes. While the pollution may be less, there will be high traffic volumes. We do no benefit from this conversion.”

Bongani Mthembu, the air quality officer at the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, said they were opposed to the conversion.

“We will have more trucks moving on residential roads like Quality Street, Basil February and Tara Road. From experience, we know of the harm and damage this can cause. We rather have a renewable product manufacturing factory or a company that will benefit the community which includes creating employment for locals as well no impact on the health of the residents.”

Bheki Mbanjwa, the spokesperson for the Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs in KwaZulu-Natal, said the department had engaged with Engen on, among other matters, the recent explosion and fire and plans to repurpose the refinery. He said the proposed plan for the conversion was presented to the department and to MEC Ravi Pillay.

“The plan is currently being interrogated. We believe that the conversion of the refinery will lead to a significant reduction in air pollution in the area. The department is carefully considering the impact that this conversion will have on jobs, fuel supply and on the economy in general.

“Engen has promised that it has a plan to preserve existing jobs. Such will include reskilling of employees for redeployment within the company. Engen has further assured us that it is considering potential new investment in the province. This may include an investment into a renewable energy facility which may require access to land.”

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