Creecy 'deeply concerned' about air quality, marine ecosystems after fire at Durban chemical plant

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Clean-up operations are under way at the UPL chemical plant in Cornubia, Durban.
Clean-up operations are under way at the UPL chemical plant in Cornubia, Durban.
Thabiso Goba
  • A special team will arrive in KwaZulu-Natal on Thursday to assess the impact of a chemical fire at the UPL warehouse.
  • The UPL chemical plant in Cornubia housed about 1 600 hazardous materials.
  • It was torched during the widespread unrest in the province last week.

The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment said it was concerned about the impact of a chemical fire at the UPL chemical plant in Cornubia, Durban, on air quality and marine ecosystems. The plant was torched during the unrest in KwaZulu-Natal last week.

"We are deeply concerned about the environmental impact on air quality as well as on the aquatic and marine ecosystems resulting from the fire incident," Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Minister Barbara Creecy said.

The department has decided to deploy a team of specialists to KwaZulu-Natal after a request from the province's MEC for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs Ravi Pillay.

"The team will support the ongoing efforts to address the pollution impacts resulting from the burning of the UPL warehouse, containing bulk supplies of herbicides, fungicides and pesticides," she said.

The team will arrive in KwaZulu-Natal on Thursday and will consist of experts with technical skills in a number of areas, such as aquatic systems, epidemiology (health risk assessment), enforcement, oceans and coasts.

The UPL chemical plant in Cornubia, Durban, which contained about 1 600 hazardous materials, was torched during the mass unrest last week. The fire burnt for days, and concerns mounted over the impact on the environment and residents' health. The chemical plant is situated near the Umhlanga Lagoon and the Ohlanga River and feeds into the Indian Ocean.

KZN UNREST | Pollution tests underway after a chemical plant was set alight in Durban

"The objective of this team will be to provide on-the-ground support and assistance to the KZN Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs Department and the eThekwini Municipality. The priority at this stage is to ensure that impacts are mitigated and that the containment measures are effective," Creecy said.

The company said in a statement: "UPL... consulted extensively with toxicologist Dr Gerhard Verdoorn. In his view, there is a minimal risk of any long-term effects to the health of people exposed to smoke from the warehouse. The situation is being closely monitored, and to date no cases of acute human toxicity have been reported."

It said a number of the products were bio-stimulants and foliar feeds which are water-based, with micro-nutrients and some biological beneficial organisms, and do not represent a health concern.

"There were also fungicides and herbicides, most of which were probably destroyed by the extreme heat of the fire and in most cases can be expected to have burned out into the atmosphere. It is advisable, however, for people with asthmatic conditions and very young infants to avoid the immediate surroundings of the Cornubia warehouse," the company said.

It has also advised residents against approaching the warehouse area where the industrial cleaning team is working to clean up the site.

"Water and sediment samples are being taken from the beaches that have been closed as well as the Ohlanga River and Umhlanga Lagoon, and the public is advised to follow all guidance issued by the authorities in this regard," it said.

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