Blast to shut Engen refinery for four months

2008-11-13 00:00

Damage running into hundreds of millions will keep Durban’s Engen oil refinery shut for about four months — but neighbours are unsympathetic. They were forced to flee their homes in the early hours of yesterday morning after a blast rocked south Durban, causing a massive fire.

It is almost a year since another huge blaze resulted in panic. The 2007 fire, caused by a lightning strike to a fuel storage tank, burnt for three days and cost the refinery R210 million. However, the refinery remained operational.

Yesterday’s fire was extinguished by Engen’s internal fire brigade within three hours. It occurred in the unit that feeds crude oil into the refinery’s processing units.

Morris Stapelfedlt, who lives opposite the refinery, said he was woken by three warning sirens followed by a huge explosion. He and other residents saw huge flames.

“The explosion woke everyone. We just stood there and thought that last year’s nightmare fire was happening again. We … want to live without the fear of being killed in one of those fires. We want the refinery to be relocated …” he said.

Desmond D’Sa, head of the South Durban Environmental Alliance, kept a vigil outside the burning refinery. At least 40 residents joined him to picket yesterday morning.

D’Sa said there have been more than three fires at Engen since November 2007. “These small fires were the warning signs and everyone ignored them.”

Ward councillor Ebrahim Shaik met Engen management. He explained that a pump failed, which caused the seams of the joint in the unit to buckle. A crude oil tank then caught fire and a nearby nitrogen tank exploded.

Although residents experienced sore eyes and throats and tight chests, there were no serious injuries. Engen took air samples and will send them to laboratories to ascertain pollution levels.

Levels during the 2007 fire, which left a heavy plume of smoke across the city for three days, were not dangerous.

Engen is SA’s biggest supplier of oil and related products and provides nearly a quarter of the country’s fuel. Willem Oosthuizen, general manager of the refinery, said petrol supplies would not be disrupted. He said the refinery’s stocks would last between two and three weeks, after which contingency plans are in place to import fuel.

The refinery is expected to lose $600 000 per day. It is not yet known how long it will take to bring in specially manufactured equipment to repair the unit or the cost of repairs, which is expected to run into hundreds of millions.

Engen spokesman Herb Payne said an investigation into the cause of the blaze has begun. Responding to criticisms that the refinery, which was built in 1954, is old and needs to be upgraded or moved to a new, less densely populated site, Payne said none of the original refinery now exists, as it has been constantly updated over the years. The section that burnt was built in 1992.

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