Toxic stream

2011-06-21 00:00

A POTENTIAL ecological disaster following a serious accident involving a truck carrying a toxic chemical on Friday has been minimised through the speedy and thorough mop-up operation in progress to recover the spillage, which filtered its way to a nearby stream.

About 4 000 litres of creosote entered the Allerton stream, which is a tributary of the Townbush stream in Chase Valley.

Creosote is a mix of a pesticide or insecticide and heavy oil, and is used for treating wooden poles such as the ones used by Telkom for its phone cables.

What makes the creosote an aquatic and environmental nightmare is the fact that it is soluble.

This means that a few litres of the substance spreads at an extraordinary rate when mixed with water.

Responding to a Witness query, Manisha Maharaj, spokesperson for the Department of Water Affairs, conceded that creosote toxic nature and will affect aquatic life.

However, she said, Water Affairs and the Environmental Affairs and Rural Development departments are satisfied that the contingency plans put in place have limited the environmental impact that could have been disastrous.

She said the affected stream is not a major water course and the impact had been limited to the tributary.

Furthermore, the flow in the tributary is quite slow, which further limits the environmental impact.

“The specialists and specialised environmental clean-up companies were on site within half-an-hour of the incident and started containment and clean-up operations immediately,” Maharaj said.

This was confirmed by an inspection conducted on Friday and yesterday, Maharaj added.

The mop-up operation involved the initial containment of creosote. This was followed by the cleaning up of the spillage, which entailed the installation of cut-off drains, river diversion upstream , the use of environmentally friendly absorbent material to absorb the creosote from the stream, the installation of booms and dams, the provision of skips, and flow tankers for extracted contaminated material.

The collision occurred along the N3 near Town Hill at around 7 am and involved a van, a truck with a tanker trailer and a tub containing creosote.

This resulted in the road being closed for about nine hours as the clean-up of the 37 tons of creosote the highway got under way.

Zinhle Mngomezulu, a spokesperson for the Road Traffic Inspectorate, described the accident as a traffic nightmare.

Traffic was diverted at Cedara and in Merrivale near Howick because of the road closure and the extent of the spill .

Trucks ferrying livestock were given a priority clearance.

Other heavy-duty trucks were stacked up for about five hours during the initial stages of the clean-up.

Mngomezulu said that the accident was as a result of driver error. She said she could not give further details until the courts have taken a decision.

Bobby Peek, who is the director of groundWork, a national environmental justice organisation based in Pietermaritzburg, said he was worried about the effect of creosote because of its toxic nature.

“Question yourself. Have you ever seen a rotten Telkom pole? Never — because they are poisonous to animals …”

However, Peek said, the real issue is the government’s failure to heed calls to improve its rail network to ensure that toxic chemicals are taken off the nation’s roads.

“The N3 is the busiest toxic chemical route in the country since it is nestled between the port of Durban and all the oil refineries in south Durban and the chemical industry in Gauteng. Accidents like these are a common occurrence.

“Personally I travel the Durban/ Pietermaritzburg road daily and I witness accidents monthly,” Peek said.

Residents visited at their homes by The Witness were generally understanding about the disturbances caused as a result of the clean-up.

Resident Chris Stanford described the powerful creosote odour, which covered the immediate neighbourhood where the stream runs, as unpleasant.

However, he was impressed with the manner in which the problem had been addressed.

One resident complained about the noise of the pumps that have been working non-stop since Friday, while another said he has become accustomed to “the Jeyes fluid smell”.

Maharaj said much of the spilled creosote ended up on the N3, with about 4 000 litres entering the stream

However, a resident told The Witness he had learnt from the workers cleaning up the spill that 60 000 litres had been spilled and that it would take two weeks working 24/7 to clean it up.

Maharaj said 4 000 kg of creosote had been removed from the stream by yesterday afternoon, which she said will be be disposed of at a hazardous landfill site.

The Witness understands that the only landfill licensed for the dumping of hazardous toxic waste is in Holfontein in Gauteng.

Maharaj declined to comment on the extent of the impact until the specialist river health studies have been concluded.

“We have requested a river health survey as well as water quality monitoring to be conducted and the relevant specialists have been employed.

“An onsite meeting with the team as well as the departments of Water Affairs and Environmental Affairs and Rural Development has taken place this morning,” she said.

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