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Iron curtain divides popular holiday beach

The ’iron curtain’ on the beach at Umhlanga, which keeps beachgoers behind the one-kilometre exclusion zone that is still out of bounds following the chemical spill at UPL’s Cornubia warehouse. Picture: Duncan Guy

The ’iron curtain’ on the beach at Umhlanga, which keeps beachgoers behind the one-kilometre exclusion zone that is still out of bounds following the chemical spill at UPL’s Cornubia warehouse. Picture: Duncan Guy

Published Dec 31, 2021

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An iron curtain of sorts, on beaches north of uMhlanga, is a remaining legacy of the Cornubia toxic waste spill, described as one of the biggest environmental disasters in 30 to 40 years.

It is also a by-product of July's rioting, the worst in South Africa since the arrival of democracy.

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There’s a fence in the sand to stop people from entering the last exclusion zone, a one-kilometre radius around the mouth of the Ohlanga river.

Many more beaches to the north and south of this zone were closed until November 2, as a result of the chemical spill.

On the free side of the barrier, marked with red “danger” and “no entry” signs, the usual year-end holiday makers pack uMhlanga’s popular beaches. On the other side, on the Day of Goodwill, a beach walker, with his dog cut a lone figure walking into the forbidden zone.

Barriers mark the no-go zone on to the beach north of uMhlanga and within a kilometre of the lagoon. Picture: Duncan Guy

Up near the “iron curtain”, a security guard emerged from his Wendy House-stylel hut and shouted at the beach walker. Repeatedly. He had to make himself heard above the waves.

After a brief exchange of hand waving, the man and his best friend changed direction. Instead of heading for the inviting, empty beach ahead, they retreated towards the stretch packed with holiday crowds.

The exclusion zone also goes a kilometre out to sea.

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“There is also a ban on fishing, swimming, surfing, and other recreational activities, collection of mussels, and other aquatic life in the specific zone,” eThekwini Municipality spokesman Msawakhe Mayisela.

“Extensive efforts have been made by clean-up crews appointed by UPL to reduce and contain the contamination that caused serious environmental damage to the Ohlanga river and estuary.

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“While there has been some degree of success, the effects of the contamination will take years to remediate.”

He said the exclusion zone was imposed to ensure that the public does not come into contact with the water in the estuary as it is still considered hazardous.

Meanwhile, news is yet to come of anyone having been arrested for the looting and destruction of the warehouse and whether any representative of UPL will be arrested for not complying with the national and municipal laws when it came to storing the toxic chemicals.

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The clean-up has cost R247 million, a bill footed by UPL.

The matter has also been part of a South African Human Rights Commission investigation into the July uprisings. Among those who have reportedly testified are members of the Blackburn informal community who continue to suffer irritations and fear using the water in their river, which changed colour after chemicals flowed into it.

UPL, which was not invited to testify, has said it will make a written submission but is yet to do so.

Shortly before Christmas, reports emerged that UPL planned to dump further chemicals into the sea to save money on land-based disposal costs.

The Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa’s east coast chair Brett Tungay expressed shock and concern.

”We call upon companies such as UPL to be responsible citizens of the community and do what is right, no matter what the cost,” he said

The company has been approached for comment but it has not yet been forthcoming.

Independent on Saturday

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