Scare after cyanide spill in water supply

2012-02-18 18:06

Newcastle residents are demanding answers following a mysterious cyanide spillage which contaminated their raw water supply this week.

About 50 cattle died on Thursday after they drank from the polluted Ngagane river and fingers were pointed at one of the town’s biggest factories, synthetic rubber manufacturer Karbochem.

The cattle reportedly died within minutes after drinking from a stream running through factory land.

The company was vague about how the spill happened. Spokesperson Jaco Prinsloo said calcium cyanide, in salt form, leaked into the river, but he quickly added that company processes do not involve the manufacture or use of cyanide.

“The incident will be investigated with all the tenants on the site to determine the cause,” he said.

“Once this is known, everything will be done to prevent a recurrence.”

He said the company would discuss the matter with the owners of the dead cattle. Prinsloo insisted the company complied with all environmental legislation.

Local newspaper, the Newcastle Advertiser, photographed the dead cattle with Karbochem workers in the background dumping chlorine in the stream to oxidise the cyanide.

This sparked fears that fish could be killed downstream.

Dr Dumisane Thabethe, spokesperson for uThukela Water, said the chemical content was under control on Friday afternoon after the town’s disaster management team decided to flush the river by opening the sluices of the Ntshingwayo Dam.

There have been no reports of any human cyanide poisoning, but Thabethe said warnings not to drink the river water were sent out on local community radio.

Locals are still very worried. In a Facebook discussion, Zelna Matthee fretted about the quality of the water, despite Thabethe’s assurances that it was safe to drink.

Anthon von Lisenborgh wanted to know who would be held responsible for the spillage.

Environmental lobby group groundWork said they were shocked, but not really surprised. Activist Bobby Peek said the department of environment had little capacity to patrol industries around smaller towns like Newcastle.

This is not the first time Karbochem has been implicated in a pollution scandal. In the early 90s, a case against the company failed. It had been accused of dumping chemicals into a river.

The department of water affairs did not respond to requests for comment.

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