The eThekwini municipality, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) and specialists from the municipality, the department and the private sector are advising and helping chemical company UPL to clean up the spill that happened in Cornubia, Durban, following the recent unrest in KwaZulu-Natal.
UPL has contracted waste management and remediation service providers and is paying all costs for the clean-up, while the environmental specialists, with help from the South African Weather Services, will conduct air dispersion modelling, as well as air quality and community exposure impact assessments to determine the impact on human health, eThekwini environmental management director Siphumelele Nowele said on July 23.
Rioters on July 13 started a fire at the UPL agrochemicals warehouse, which stored fungicides, herbicides and pesticides. Firefighters were only able to access the warehouse on July 16 and the fire was only completely extinguished on July 22.
A large quantity of water was used to extinguish the fire, which led to contaminated water overflowing into the stormwater system and from there into the river system and out into the coastal estuary and the sea.
A joint operations committee comprising national and municipal agencies, specialists and UPL representatives had inspected the channel, stream, river and estuary, and determined that they were contaminated by chemicals from the warehouse. They also observed dead fish and confirmed offensive odours. The affected beach remains closed to the public.
Municipal officials, during an inspection of the affected warehouse on July 22, were satisfied with activities undertaken by UPL to contain the pollution and confirmed that the pollution had been contained and was no longer flowing out of the facility.
Two waste management and remediation companies are cleaning up the pollution, some of which floats on the water while other chemicals have already sunk below the surface. However, the amount of chemicals that had already reached the waterway meant that it would take time to clean up the pollution to ensure human life and biodiversity are protected.
"The national and municipal environment officials are supporting UPL to deal with the matter. While investigations continue into the incident, the environmental departments are focused on cleaning up the pollution and protecting human life and biodiversity," Nowele said.
Provincial wildlife agency Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife senior marine and estuary ecologist Santosh Bachoo said marine biologists have found dead Mozambican tilapia, juvenile molluscs and sea bream during inspections, while reports of dead crayfish and mole crabs on beaches from Umhlanga to Umdloti were reported.
Ethekwini municipality pollution control and air quality senior manager Bruce Dale said the national and municipal departments, according to the National Environmental Management Act, adhere to the polluter pays principle in the Act.
However, Nowele emphasised that the act of sabotage had endangered the lives of people and public health, and that UPL was paying for all clean-up efforts and had formed a large team of consultants and service providers. The department was focused on dealing with the matter from an environment perspective, and would wait for other law enforcement agencies to complete their investigations before apportioning blame or laying charges.
Dale added that the list of 1 600 different chemicals that had been stored in the warehouse had been pared down to a shorter list of active ingredients by a specialist toxicologist.
Additionally, the eThekwini environmental department would investigate the impact of the air pollution on soil and water throughout the affected areas once dispersion modelling was complete.
Further, while the UPL facility did not have bunding, which is a retention system to prevent pollution entering the environment, this is only a requirement for production facilities and not storage facilities. The chemicals are, however, all toxic and hazardous, which means the activities within the warehouse are considered scheduled activities requiring a permit and would trigger listing requirements according to municipal by-laws.
Once the pollution has been cleaned up, the municipal environmental department would investigate whether all required preventive measures had been in place.
KwaZulu-Natal senior environmental compliance officer Dr Zinhle Dlamini said the company had been transparent, while working with the joint operations committee and showed significant willingness to work with the authorities to deal with the pollution.