Fire in the chemical warehouse in South Africa poses environmental and health risks

During the violent protests that rocked South Africa following the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma in July, a huge agrochemicals warehouse containing more than 1,600 highly toxic chemicals was set on fire and hazardous material was spat in the air, a nearby river, and a wetland for the ten consecutive days that the fire raged.

UPL (formerly United Phosphorus Limited), the Indian multinational company that owns the 14,000-square-foot warehouse in the port city of Durban in the country’s southeastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, has remained evasive over the exact types and quantities of chemicals being used at the time of Brandes were stored in the camp. But research by the media and environmentalists has shown that most of these chemicals are banned in many parts of the world because of their absolute threat to life and the environment.

As authorities and environmentalists seek full answers, locals have serious health concerns, including the possibility of birth deformities in the near future.

Tons of fish and other aquatic life have washed up in the nearby Umhlanga Estuary, with environmentalists concerned about the impact on birds and wildlife that ate the dead marine life.

Company releases itself from guilt

When FairPlanet contacted UPL spokesman Craig Dodds for comment on reports that some of the chemicals in the warehouse were blacklisted in the EU and other global markets and reports that the warehouse was being set up regulatory measures had not been followed, said Dodds simply shared an earlier statement absolving the company of any wrongdoing.

“UPL has provided all necessary information to the relevant authorities and the company promptly made all necessary legal notices,” said Dodds’ statement. “As part of the regular reporting, the company had informed the authorities about the condition of the products stored in the warehouse. All products in the warehouse were proprietary products approved for use in South Africa by the Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture under Act No. 36 of 1947. “

Company admits damage caused

However, the statement acknowledged that a disaster had occurred. “Many of the water-based products in the warehouse were atomized during the fire, creating a thick plume of smoke and smoke that distressed many people in the neighboring areas,” the statement said.

“Because a considerable amount of water was used to extinguish the fire and, due to the delayed response of the cleaning services during the ongoing unrest, the unevaporated product and the water from the fires flooded the containment system and escaped into the environment.

“Water contaminated by a combination of these products, including pesticides, ran down the stormwater system, surrounding platform and valley lines into the Umhlanga River, damaging plants and marine organisms on its way.”

Questionable EIA pass

Mark Laing, a South African citizen, used social media to ask questions about the strange circumstances under which the company had managed to obtain an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for its warehouse.

“How did UPL approve the EIA for this facility when there were no retention barriers around the facility?” Wrote Laing. “You can see this clearly on the drone photos if you look at the terrain from a bird’s eye view. The idea of ​​a rampart or berm (either a ditch or high walls around the perimeter of the site) is that in the event of a fire or spillage of toxic compounds in the facility, the toxic compounds must be retained. along with water that was sprayed on the fire to put out the fire. “

“It is a basic EIA requirement for all locations around the world where toxic compounds are stored,” he added. “So how did you get permission to move to this location without meeting this basic requirement?”

Bheki Mbanjwa, the spokesman for the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government, was quoted in the local media as saying that he refused to comment on who was to blame for the disaster and what measures were being taken against it.

“We cannot explain or take action based on speculation,” said Mbanjwa. “The questions pending in the UPL matter are dealt with thoroughly and professionally. Anyone facing consequences will do so, be it on rehabilitation responsibilities, public health issues, or even a criminal case. “

Environmentalists are deeply concerned

David Allan, curator of the Durban Natural Science Museum, told FairPlanet that, according to his observations so far, the danger to life and the environment was not directly involved in the investigation of the spill, but it was great.

“The short-term effects of the spill have already proven disastrous. And the signs certainly suggest that we can assume this will extend over the long term, ”Allan told FairPlanet.

“Poisons can often ‘bioaccumulate’, causing organisms further up the food chain to acquire increasingly toxic levels from the material they feed on further down the food chain,” said Allan. “Birds are fairly high up the food chain, in fact some, like the African osprey (a pair of which have long inhabited the estuary) are actually at the top of such chains and are particularly vulnerable. So we can expect that fish-eating birds may be most affected and invertebrate food animals may be less affected. Herbivorous (including seed-eating) birds may be least affected. “

Allan said detailed research is needed to determine the precise knowledge of what chemicals are related and what amounts are involved, along with technical input from pesticide experts to formulate appropriate mitigation measures.

Devastating effects on life

Rico Euripidou of groundWork – Friends of the Earth South Africa – told FairPlanet that while the information was not readily available because the Mumbai-based company was not transparent, the information received showed that the warehouse contained over 5,000 tons of chemicals of which around 1,600 are pesticides, agrochemicals and agro-products, some of which are classified as highly hazardous and banned in the EU.

“The devastating effects of deadly pesticides and herbicides on aquatic life in the acute phase were almost immediate. About five tons of aquatic and marine life have been collected by the specialized chemical spill control teams, but the health hazard to surrounding communities is more likely. “Last many years,” said Euripidou.

He added that the conditions under which some of the chemicals were released into the environment are known to lead to the formation of persistent organic chemicals that are known to cause cancer in humans and animals.

Avoid similar disasters in the future

When asked how such disasters could be avoided in the future, Euripidou said the world should always learn from previous disasters. “However, we should have learned from the history of similar environmental and health disasters,” he said. “In July 1976 in particular, a fire in an agrochemical production plant north of Milan in Italy led to the release of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (“ TCDD ”or“ dioxin ”). a highly toxic by-product that had a profound impact on people and the environment in the nearby small town of Seveso. ”

“Immediately thereafter, pets and farm animals were particularly affected, and although the human population was evacuated, many negative human health effects, such as cancer, were recorded in the exposed populations decades after the incident,” said Euripidou.

Allan of the Durban Natural Science Museum added that in order to prevent such incidents in the future, “it is more necessary to become more aware of such facilities, make environmental assessments, regulations and safeguards to minimize their risks (including careful assessment of where they are are located), and above all we have to enforce these safety precautions. ”

“We have to make sure that facilities like this are prepared for the most unlikely events like the unrest that has occurred,” he said.

Company registers complaints

UPL, which says it is working to mitigate the effects of the disaster, has since started inviting individuals and organizations who wish to complain about the incident.

“Any company or person wishing to file a complaint about the incident must complete the UPL Cornubia Warehouse Fire complaint form and submit the complaint form to UPL,” the company said in its August 26 statement.

Picture by: Meddy Huduti

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