An explosion took place at the Engen Refinery in December. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)
An explosion took place at the Engen Refinery in December. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

’I still cannot hear in my left ear’ says resident following Engen explosion

By Chanelle Lutchman Time of article published Feb 19, 2021

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Durban - THE homes of residents in the South Durban Basin have still not been repaired, two months after an explosion at the Engen refinery.

Six people were reportedly injured in the incident on December 4.

At the time, Engen said it would take responsibility for the damage to properties in the surrounding areas, but some residents have claimed that nothing has been done.

“I have an outbuilding on my property where I store my stuff. On the day, I was in the outbuilding when I heard a loud sound. Parts of the ceiling broke and all I could hear was ringing. I was frightened. I ran outside and saw my wife and neighbours staring at the refinery. Once I understood what happened, I realised that I could not hear in my left ear," said Ivan Redman, 70, of Marine Drive on the Bluff.

“My ear is still blocked. I have made an appointment to see a doctor about it next week. My wife has been telling me to go for a check-up for a while, but a doctor’s consult is not cheap. I finally gave in last week and decided that I will go.”

He said a day after the explosion, a representative from Engen’s Cape Town office called to say they would assist with the damages to his property.

“But since then, I have had no joy. I waited for another call, but it never came. I called the Engen offices here in the south, as well as the head office, a few times, and I was just given reference numbers. No one came to my home to assess the damage.

“There was a lot of heavy rain in December and January, and the hole in the ceiling got bigger and my outbuilding was flooded. Two weeks ago, I cut an old geyser and tried to replace the ceiling myself, but it does not look nice and water still seeps in. But it will do for now until the ceiling is sorted.”

Irene Fynn, who lives in Treasure Beach, along the fence line of the refinery, said an assessor arrived at her home a few weeks ago.

“My windows broke, the walls cracked and a portion of the roof shifted, fell and broke. But I was told that I was claiming for things that were not damaged due to the explosion.”

Jeffery Williard, who lives about 150 metres from the refinery, said he now slept with the doors unlocked.

“My front door was damaged and I have been unable to close it. In addition to this, the walls were cracked. My mother-in-law lives alone nearby and her windows broke. The assessors checked our homes, but nothing is happening. It's sad. We feel like criminals for asking for something that they rightfully have to replace and repair. If the explosion did not happen, we would not have these problems.”

Last week, Parliament's portfolio committee on environment, forestry and fisheries met with the management of Engen at the plant for an oversight visit. Members of the provincial environmental committee were also present.

The oversight visit comes after environmental organisations, including the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and Groundwork, complained about Engen’s failure to provide information about the explosion and the fire.

Fikile Xasa, chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee, said Engen was not being transparent about the extent of the pollution of local rivers which resulted from the explosion and fire.

“The information supplied by Engen contradicts what members of the committee saw in photos about chemicals flowing into the community water canal from Engen. The committee has requested Engen to submit all reports related to the incident and it will give feedback to the communities after considering and deliberating on all submissions, including from community members.”

Xasa said the committee was unable to access the site as management informed them that it was closed due to health and safety hazards. He said they had also been informed by Engen that its operating permit was revoked due to the explosion – until the refinery submitted the investigation report and preventative measures to the authorities.

"The committee has requested Engen to submit all reports related to the incident and it will give feedback to the communities after considering and deliberating on all submissions, including from community members.”

Dave Bryant, a DA MP and its spokesperson for environment, forestry and fisheries, said the initial plan was to do a walkabout but the plan changed due to concerns from Engen.

“Members of the committee were still able to view the damage done by the explosion. Our guide advised that the damage occurred when a large tank of nitrogen exploded, causing an estimated R800 million in damage.”

The DA believes that the concerns of local residents are important and that both the senior leadership of the eThekwini Municipality and Engen should be engaging regularly to address the concerns.

Bongani Mthethwa, the air quality and geographical information systems officer at the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, said: “For years we have been begging Engen to allow us in to do an oversight visit but our requests were always ignored.

“We were allowed to send one member in with the committee and from what we hear, the conditions inside the plant were terrible and the infrastructure was old.”

He said the alliance had initially intended to pursue the matter legally. However, he claimed the refinery management wanted to hold a dialogue and resolve its differences.

“We have a committee set up with residents and associations surrounding the refinery and just last week, both us and Engen chose Professor Karthy Govender to step in as our mediator for our meeting. Hopefully soon, we will get a date for when that meeting can take place.”

Engen did not respond at the time of publication.

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