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Environmental experts weigh in on the UPL chemical spill report

The United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) warehouse in Cornubia, north of Durban, which stored highly hazardous chemicals, was burned during the unrest in July causing one of the worse pollution incidents. File Picture.

The United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) warehouse in Cornubia, north of Durban, which stored highly hazardous chemicals, was burned during the unrest in July causing one of the worse pollution incidents. File Picture.

Published Oct 5, 2021


DURBAN - THE United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) warehouse in Cornubia, north of Durban, would not have been conducting business in the area if proper licensing and regulations were followed, according to groundWork, Friends of the Earth South Africa, environmental health campaigner Rico Euripidou.

Euripidou was speaking following the release of the joint preliminary investigation report into the compliance profile of UPL by Forestry, Fisheries and Environmental Affairs Minister Barbara Creecy in uMhlanga on Sunday.

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Creecy also announced that a criminal case had been opened in connection with the chemical spill from the UPL warehouse, due to a fire during the July unrest. Pesticide and agro-chemicals spilled into the Ohlanga River, uMhlanga estuary and the sea as a result of the fire.

The report said that UPL had failed to attain environmental authorisation to store chemicals at its warehouse, or a critical risk assessment or planning permission from the municipality, which only became apparent when the warehouse was set on fire.

Euripidou said it appeared, from the report, that UPL was conducting business in the area unlawfully and without the right licences.

He said if the company had gone for a full environmental impact assessment, the hazardous substances being stored which exceeded the threshold of the regulations would have triggered the process of a broader number of stakeholders around UPL being notified. These included the school, residents, the Fire Department, eThekwini Municipality, KZN Ezemvelo and The Sharks Board, he said.

“All of these stakeholders, if they had followed the interpretation of the law would have then said that this is an inappropriate facility to undertake that business. Notwithstanding the fire and the unrest, it should not have been there in the first place,” said Euripidou.

He said the licences and regulations seek to mitigate any accidents, whether it is an act of God or extenuating circumstances or “unique”.

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Euripidou said if the proper processes were followed, the emergency responders would have known before they arrived at the scene that there was in excess of 500 000kg of mixtures, including highly hazardous pesticides, insecticides and herbicides.

They would have been prepared in terms of wearing the appropriate equipment and in the way they put out the fire.

Desmond D’Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance said they were not impressed with the minister’s response three-and a-half months after the incident.

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He said the alliance had requested to be a part of the joint investigation, but as it was a legal matter, the environmental justice organisation’s request was denied.

D’sa said that as part of the community affected by the spill, the organisation was still waiting for documents requested, with all the details of the spill and what chemicals were burnt.

“Where is the inspecting authority? The situation is worrying. The minister needs to open the doors to civil society,” he said.

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He questioned what was being done about the granting of licences to companies, especially after the recent fires at companies in KZN.

“Who will hold these companies accountable? There is no oversight from the national and provincial government. Government is failing the people. What is it that needs to be done so that we don’t repeat these incidents?” he asked.

D’sa said the minister should have instructed UPL to immediately employ medical experts to go into the communities and start testing residents for any health issues. He said in some cases the effects are only seen and felt years later.

D’sa said while it was not known how far the legal matter would go, the organisation hoped that the interest of the people would be at the forefront.