Durban's Polluted Waters

On the evening of 12 July 2021 a blaze set by looters in a UPL Chemical Warehouse in Cornubia resulted in the release of at least 5000 tonnes of potentially toxic pollutants , devastating the uMhlanga River, Lagoon and surrounding wetlands.

Internationally acclaimed and award winning Photographer and Feature Journalist, Leticia Cox, gives us a chilling first-hand account of the disaster and consequences.

*Note* Some may find the visuals contained in the video content disturbing*

On Friday 16 July, after hearing rumours that dead fish and crayfish were littering the uMhlanga Lagoon and beaches in uMhlanga and UmdIoti, I decided to drive to the area and find out what was happening.

At the entrance of the uMhlanga Lagoon, I met with Cllr. Rory Macpherson (DA) who’s trying very hard to assist and control the situation.

Mr Macpherson informed me that on Monday 12 July, the looting of a factory in the Cornubia area had led to multiple fires, including a warehouse [UPL] storing pesticides and other farming chemicals.

While the firefighters tried to fight the blaze started by riots, the polluted water ran down through storm water drains reaching the river system and into the local uMhlanga Lagoon, killing all marine life.

The team of Spill Tech was now at the lagoon trying to prevent the polluted water from entering the ocean.

After spending some time at the lagoon taking pictures of the dead fish being removed by the Spill Tech team, I went to check the factory.

At the factory site, which was still smouldering, Drizit Spill Technologies Oil and Chemical Pollution control were busy cleaning the debris and spill.
All fire hydrants in the immediate area had been destroyed by the rioters, adding further challenges to an already exacting situation.

On 20 July, the factory is still smouldering, and the chemicals continue to pour into the river and the ocean. A strong chemical smell has also penetrated the air.

A large informal settlement is located next to the highly contaminated area. Residents of the uMhlanga area have reported intense chemical fumes, while surfers have complained of skin burns.

The area directly surrounding the polluted rivers and soil is all sugarcane fields. On Wednesday, 21 July, sugarcanes workers were busy cutting and harvesting those contaminated sugar canes and having their lunches next to the riverbeds.

High scale chain contamination is possible from the use of animal products from animals grazing in areas affected by the polluted river and other toxins in the air and soil.

Some similar incidents elsewhere that raise concern, or are they just coincidences?

During the unrest three months ago, Bidvest Group has also reported concerns regarding one of its warehouses in Mobeni after their warehouse sprinkler systems had been damaged by looters.
The warehouse facility includes a certified hazardous storage facility containing approximately 500,000 litres of dangerous chemicals that are highly flammable and highly toxic.

National Fumigants have also reported to the authorities of a significant number of pallets of a chemical called ‘Aluminium phosphide ‘being stolen from the RTT warehouse in Olifantsfontein, Bronkhorstspruit, during riots.

On Sunday 11 July, a warehouse in Hammarsdale was also looted. Rioters later returned to a warehouse in Hammarsdale to further plunder the site before being stopped by police.

In a separate incident on Sunday night, 11 July, a warehouse in Munster on the KwaZulu-Natal [KZN] was razed by fire.

Several factories storing toxic products around KZN have also been targeted, looted and burned down by the rioters. Police have refused to disclose details on further attacks, deaths, and arrests.

Are these seemingly isolated incidents of arson and looting on warehouses containing chemicals persisting all around KZN a coincidence? The question must be asked.

In a press release issued on Sunday 18 July, authorities urged the public to refrain from picking up and collecting dead marine life off the Umdloti and uMhlanga coastline. They have been contaminated with toxic chemicals and could be harmful to humans.

The public is reminded that the beaches north of the Umgeni River are closed as a precautionary measure. The public is advised to refrain from recreational activities, including fishing or surfing, bait collection, and picking up dead species. Collecting or harvesting any marine living resource in the area is temporarily prohibited until the cause is determined and the threat subsides.

Today, the public is still reminded that the beaches north of the Umgeni River are closed as a precautionary measure.
The public is advised to refrain from recreational activities, including fishing or surfing, bait collection, and picking up dead species. Collecting or harvesting any marine living resource in the area is temporarily prohibited until the cause is determined and the threat subsides.

Containing the Unfolding Disaster

There have been numerous discussions among various environmental entities on how to control and assist the situation.
Some agree that blocking the river water from flowing into the sea will help to isolate the disaster area and contain it from further polluting the sea. Others advised to let the polluted water flow into the ocean and be diluted by the power of the sea.
The environmental entities in charge have collected water and sediment samples from the polluted rivers in the area, and they are now waiting for results on the toxic components.
uMhlanga Lagoon has turned turquoise, and its ecosystem is entirely dead.
Despite all the efforts of the cleaning services, this environmental disaster is not yet contained or under control, and the aftermath has just begun. Birds have now started feeding on the contaminated fish and other sea life, and it’s just the beginning of a long-term chain of environmental catastrophe.

According to other sources assisting with the situation, at this stage, the scale and proportion of contamination as well as health risks for humans, etc., is unknown.

On my last visit to the affected areas, I noticed several containers full of dead wildlife. What is going to happen to it, and how is it going to be disposed of?

Spill Tech is trying extremely hard to clean up and remove the contaminated water that is still flowing into the water system and into the rivers.
I was informed by someone on-site that approximately 90 000 litres of contaminated water are pumped from the rivers every day and stored in tanks whilst waiting for further instructions on how to treat it or dispose of it.
Early this month, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment [DFFE] released a preliminary report into the United Phosphorus Limited [UPL], the company responsible for a devastating chemical spill in Durban in July.

It appears that the agrochemical giant was storing hazardous pesticides there but may not have been upfront with authorities on the dangers, and a criminal case has now been opened.
Beaches along the so-called Golden Mile were closed, and some remain closed.
A recent report suggests that high levels of chemicals were found in soil and water samples close to the Black Burn informal settlement.

How did UPL get away with flouting the law?

According to Mrs Barbara Creecy, Minister of the DFFE, the primary UPL compliance report finds that UPL was not compliant with the requirement to have an ‘Environmental Impact Assessment ‘, which UPL should have requested from the provincial government.
The report also finds that UPL were not in compliance with the Health and Safety and other municipal bylaws; by doing so, UPL would have been defined as a ‘major hazard institute’, an obligation on UPL’s part.

‘When a company, especially a foreign company, comes to our country, they have the duty to inform themselves of the legal, regulatory environment,” said Mrs Creecy.

Mrs Creecy also stated that UPL did not do the ‘Risk Assessment’ and were not known to be a major hazard institute. When the fire broke out on the 12th of July, the firemen were not aware of what was stored in the warehouse.
The firemen used water to dust the fire. The consequences of using thousands of litres of water for a ten-day period to downsize the fire led to a massive volume of toxic water flooding into the Umhlanga river and into the Umhlanga Lagoon.
An entire ecosystem is now dead – there are no living organisms, and the vegetation has been destroyed.

“We have collected more than 3 tons of dead fish and crustaceans from the Umhlanga Lagoon, and from the Lagoon, these substances /toxic chemicals into the sea’, adds Mrs Creecy.

Danger to life and health. Does the public know how dangerous these chemicals are?

Insecticides stored on the UPL Warehouse contained methanol, arsenic and other neurotoxins, which are extremely dangerous when on fire.
The uninformed firefighters and members of the nearby communities were breathing those toxic fumes in.

According to Mrs Creecy, the firemen are part of the population group that has been sampled in ongoing basic.
There is a significant concern from a public health perspective, as they might not see any immediate signs of impact on their health. A long term, on the relevant population, to ensure that there are no long term impacts on their health, is currently being conducted.
Early this week, a chemical emissions inventory report by Metamorphosis Environmental Consultants had been finalised and estimated that the UPL warehouse that burned down on 12 July contained 2,339,055 kg of pesticides, 3,003,401 kg of combustibles and 35,378 kg of flammables, giving a combined total of at least five thousand tonnes of potentially toxic pollutants.

Test results from a laboratory in the United Kingdom have confirmed many people’s worst fears: the Ohlanga river, Umhlanga lagoon and the surrounding wetland have been contaminated with highly toxic chemicals including arsenic, atrazine and bromoxynil. Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer. There are about 200 different dioxins, which have no smell or colour.

What is next for UPL?

 “A criminal investigation led by the Green Scorpions is ongoing. Once the relevant sampling and other documentation on the findings are finalised, the investigation will be handed to the National Director of Public Prosecutions [NDPP], who will decide on prosecution, and a court of law will make the finding,” said Mrs Creecy.

conclusion

A whole ecosystem is now dead.
The scale of contamination is still unknown.
Although it has been more than three months since the catastrophe, the water systems and air contamination continue unabated, and many questions remain unanswered.