PICS | MPs raise concerns after chemical spill at Durban plant 'kills aquatic life'

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This image shows dead fish in the river in the uMhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve in Durban on 18 July after a chemical spill.
This image shows dead fish in the river in the uMhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve in Durban on 18 July after a chemical spill.
GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP
  • United Phosphorus Limited in Durban was set on fire during the unrest and looting in KwaZulu-Natal. 
  • The fire resulted in the roof collapsing and chemicals flowing into streams and beaches north of Durban.
  • Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Environment visited the facility to assess that impact and extent of the damages. 

Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Environment, Forestry and Fisheries says it is concerned by the conflicting reports of compliance at the United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) warehouse in Durban, where a fire broke out, causing a chemical spill, during the recent looting and unrest.

The committee conducted an oversight visit at the facility on Wednesday, following the fire on 12 July.

It said it was briefed on the runoff of "a cocktail of 1 600 chemicals as a result of the fire, which flowed into the Mhlanga tributary, Mhlanga estuary and onto the beach, leaving a pungent smell, discolouring the water and killing aquatic life".

This image shows dead fish in the river in the uMh
Dead fish in the river in the uMhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve in Durban.

The briefing was done by the Joint Operation Committee (JOC), made up of the: Department of the Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment; the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs; the Department of Water and Sanitation; eThekwini Municipality, and the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. 

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"The committee raised several concerns about the contradictory reports on compliance certificates, the inventory of chemicals and co-operation with UPL.

"The pressing concern was the potential impact on the lives of people living in the vicinity of the warehouse. The committee was told in response that investigations are ongoing, and reports will be given to the committee upon completion,” said the committee following the engagement. 

In a statement last week, UPL addressed speculations about the compliance of their facility, saying:

UPL was advised, prior to opening, that the leasing and operating of a warehouse for its products did not trigger an environmental assessment under the NEMA regulations. That advice has, since the fire, been confirmed by its legal consultants.

It added: "In relation to the risk assessment requirements under the Major Hazardous Installation (MHI) Regulations, UPL took the view that its warehouse operation did not constitute an MHI and that it did not need to conduct a risk assessment. That view has now also been confirmed by its legal consultant.

"The Cornubia warehouse was located in an appropriately zoned facility that, in the opinion of its technical staff and external consultants, was fit for purpose. The facility was equipped with the necessary infrastructure to manage incidents of the kind reasonably expected," the chemical company added.

Fire

JOC highlighted to the committee the impediments that had blocked the fire department’s access to the warehouse when the blaze started.

A member of a spill cleaning crew removes dead fis
A member of a spill cleaning crew removes dead fish from the river in the uMhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve.

According to UPL, reports suggest that there were multiple fires started which engulfed the warehouse and resulted in the roof collapsing.  

"The fire department’s initial response to the fire was delayed for a variety of reasons, including threats to the safety of their personnel and barricades that delayed access, and strained resources in dealing with the multitude of events at the time.

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"When the fire department was eventually able to attend to it, the fire was so advanced and in places covered by so much rubble and sheet metal from the destroyed warehouse that it took several days to access certain areas and extinguish the smouldering debris," said UPL. 

The committee also met with members of the community to assess how they had been affected. 

A member of a spill cleaning crew removes dead fis
A member of a spill cleaning crew removes dead fish from the river in the uMhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve in Durban.

"The stakeholders voiced their experiences with water and air pollution, and the government response. The committee was informed of the short-term effects felt by community members, which included shortness of breath, intermittent asthma, polluted irrigation water for vegetable gardens and the closure of schools.

"The stakeholders wanted to be involved in the work of the joint departmental operating committee, as they are directly affected and interested in contributing to solutions," said the committee. 

Meanwhile, the fire has been extinguished and clean-up efforts are ongoing. 

"Sampling is being conducted in all of the important water bodies, along with air sampling. The relevant national, provincial and local authorities are extensively involved in this work. UPL has been commended by them at a press briefing held on 23 July for its cooperation and effective responses to date," said UPL.

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