Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency (ANA)
Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency (ANA)

Air quality, marine life in Durban still under threat after torching of chemical warehouse

By Vivian Warby Time of article published Jul 23, 2021

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The smell of chemicals in the air and dead fish and birds washing up on the beaches was a sure sign something was not quite right.

Now a week later and air quality and marine life in Durban are still under threat following the torching of a chemical warehouse in Cornubia, which housed over 1600 hazardous materials.

On Thursday a special investigative team arrived in KwaZulu-Natal to assess the environmental impact of the aftermath of the burning down of the UPL warehouse in Cornubia, which contained bulk supplies of over herbicides, fungicides and pesticides.

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The investigative team will 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.

The warehouse which only became operational less than three months ago was set alight in the week of unrest and looting that claimed the lives of 276 people and caused over R20 billion worth of damage to commercial property.

The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Minister Barbara Creecy says she is “deeply concerned”.

Dead fish are caught in a litter boom in an estuary after chemicals entered the water system from a warehouse which was burned during days of looting and violence in Durban. Picture: Rogan Ward/Reuters

The problem in warehouse fires says environmentalists, is that the combinations and reactions of different chemicals and substances are not always known either by the experts or by the people extinguishing the fires.

Warehouse fires, therefore, have very serious effects on the environment in air, water and soil pollution.

Environmentalists were alerted to the issue a week ago when dead fish started washing up on the beaches. At the time the Ethekwini Municipality reported mass fish and crustacean deaths along the Umhlanga and Umdhloti Lagoons, north of Durban and closed the beaches. Now reports indicated that it has also impacted birdlife as a number of birds have also been found dead.

It was speculated that the die-offs were caused by thousands of litres of run-off water - contaminated with hazardous chemicals - coming from the industrial chemical plant in Cornubia.

People in these areas also complained of a strange chemical smell in the air and were told to stay indoors to avoid breathing noxious chemical fumes.

Dry throats, dry noses, dermal irritation and eye irritation were some of the symptoms reported.

However, the company has said it consulted extensively with toxicologist Dr Gerhard Verdoorn and they believe there is a minimal risk of any long-term effects to the health of people exposed to smoke from the warehouse.

The chemical plant is situated near the Umhlanga Lagoon and the Ohlanga River and feeds into the Indian Ocean.

Because developments for chemicals production or storage have the potential to affect the environment in many ways high-level environmental impact assessments are always undertaken before the erecting of warehouses.

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