Apart from the cleanup and restoration after violence erupted in KZN last week, authorities are dealing with another serious crisis – the short- and long-term impact on the environment.
One of the earliest targets of the violent protests was a Chemical plant in Durban. The plant housed 1,600 hazardous materials. The facility was torched on Monday 12 July and continued to burn and smoulder for several days.
The UPL Chemical Plant in Cornubia, Durban is situated near the Umhlanga lagoon and the Ohlanga River, which feeds into the Indian Ocean. When the warehouse went up in flames last Monday and continued to burn for days, it was clear that the damage would be enormous, but it wasn’t confined to the torched site.
The water flowing into the lagoon has now turned a sinister turquoise, and dead fish have washed ashore, pointing to the extent of the resultant toxic spill. Specialists in marine biology, water, air, chemicals, estuaries and others were still awaiting test results to determine the severity and extent of the pollution.
“The threat is serious on marine life, and it may take a long time before that begins to recover. Of course, it’s not only fish, but it’s also crustaceans and birdlife that have died in the actual spill,” said Dr Kevin Winter, an environmental and geographical scientist at the University of Cape Town.
Air pollution also remains a major concern, as firefighters continue to douse the smouldering debris of the plant.
“A lot of the gases that people have been breathing in there have been very high in sulphur, that could affect, particularly, people with respiratory illnesses,” Winter explained.
KwaZulu-Natal Environmental Affairs Department’s Sphume Nowele described the levels of toxicity and air pollution in parts of the province: “It is serious, and it should not be underestimated in any way.”
Most urgent and concerning was the blaze at the UPL Pesticide Plant, where firefighters have spent days fighting the fires,
“Firefighters also need to be protected, because you don’t want to be moving stuff there and then it collapses on the firefighters. So, that is the sensitivity of the matter and that’s why it’s taking longer than expected to kill that fire completely,” Nowele said.
She said that because of the violence last week, facilities were closed, and samples only made it to laboratories on Monday. Preliminary results are expected as early as Wednesday, 21 July, and will be assessed by a team of specialists.
Other samples will take much longer to analyse after being sent overseas.
“We are going to be getting those results so that we can make informed decisions in terms of what happens moving forward.”
Beaches in the area remain closed to the public and while some businesses are desperate to reopen, they’ve been advised that it was not safe, as the damage and its costs were evaluated.