The remains of the industrial chemical plant in Cornubia, set alight during the riots. Initial reports say thousands of litres of run-off water used to douse the flames have caused mass fish deaths along the uMhlanga Lagoon. Shelley Kjonstad (ANA)
The remains of the industrial chemical plant in Cornubia, set alight during the riots. Initial reports say thousands of litres of run-off water used to douse the flames have caused mass fish deaths along the uMhlanga Lagoon. Shelley Kjonstad (ANA)

Toxic inferno company’s storage permit in doubt

By Duncan Guy Time of article published Jul 24, 2021

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The company whose warehouse was razed during the recent riots had never applied for a permit to store hazardous chemicals that had affected air and water, according to the eThekwini Municipality.

“It was not brought to the municipality's attention that the scheduled permit had been applied for," Bruce Dale, eThekwini Municipality’s air quality officer told a press conference late yesterday afternoon.

Fire fighters battled to reach the toxic inferno because of the high number of calls to fires and when they got there were not prepared for the type of fire that it was.

The fire was finally extinguished by 5pm on Thursday.

Sabelo Ngcobo, director for impact management and coastal management at the provincial level, responding to a question about the environmental impact assessment, said one developer for the area had applied for everything to be undertaken.

"It was not specific to UPL. It was registered for residential, logistics, commercial and light industrial use. UPL was authorised within that authority. We still need to determine whether they were compliant."

Siphumelele Nowele, chief director of environmental management at the department, said that if it was deliberately hidden from them that highly toxic substances were stored there, there were processes to follow that could lead to criminal action.

"But we can't jump to that point until we know."

The warehouse, owned by the Mumbai-based company UPL, was set ablaze during rioting and looting.

The press conference heard that UPL kept 1 600 different types of chemicals at the warehouse and had a mechanism to deal with fires because of the nature of its business. However, it would need metro assistance.

From a waste management point of view, because the kind of chemicals at UPL were highly hazardous, they should not be disposed of at a landfill site without provincial consent.

"There is a process to help the facility deal with that waste," said Nowele.

Ngcobo added that in its investigations, UPL had shown no sign of not willing to be transparent.

"We wish to support the facility, not to destroy it," he said.

As fire fighters fought the flames, highly toxic chemicals entered the water system of a nearby stream that flows into the uMhlanga River. From there, it has flowed into the ocean. Beaches in eThekweni, from the Mgeni Mouth northwards, have been closed.

Another aspect to be investigated is why there was no bunding ‒ or moat ‒ around an establishment housing such toxic content, the press conference heard.

Hazmat teams work to clear water running into the uMhlanga Lagoon. Thousands of litres are contaminated with hazardous chemicals from an industrial chemical plant in Cornubia which was destroyed by looters. Shelley Kjonstad (ANA)

Air pollution after the release of gases in the fire has sent Durban North residents to doctors with respiratory ailments.

“It has mainly affected chronic sinusitis and asthmatic patients but even people without these are also complaining,” said Reggie Govender, a doctor based in Somerset Park.

“About five patients a day have been coming in for the past week.”

He said people appeared to suffer from the air pollution the worst in the evenings.

Dead fish being picked up at the Ohlanga River lagoon. Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency(ANA)

By yesterday the fire was out. The charred roof stood out against a clear sky on a windy, chilly morning as clean-up operations took place.

Groups of staff, wearing construction helmets, sophisticated masks and gloves, worked at various stations along the stream where the chemicals had turned the water bright turquoise.

Oceanographer Lisa Gaustella said south-westerly winds that were coming through were likely to increase the swell and disperse the toxic chemical pollution more efficiently.

She estimated that the lagoon would take “maybe a year or two” to recover, starting with organisms that live there and in the ocean.

“In the upper reaches, smaller animals like frogs, which are a good indicator of wetland health, will take longer.”

South African Association for Marine Biological Research spokeswoman Ann Kunz said the organisation was still waiting for the toxicology report to give them a better understanding of the impacts of the spill.

The Environment, Forestry and Fisheries ministry has sent in specialists to ascertain the damage.

The Independent on Saturday

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