UPL says Durban beaches safe to reopen after chemical spill but experts sceptical
UPL has released a report, following a chemical spill in July, which has given Durban beaches the all-clear.
A member of a spill cleaning crew removes dead fish from the river in the uMhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve in Durban on 18 July 2021. Picture: GUILLEM SARTORIO/AFP
Following a devastating chemical spill from a warehouse in the Cornubia area, north of Durban, two and a half months ago amid riots and looting, beaches have been given the all-clear.
However, this update was provided by the owners of the warehouse, United Phosphorous Limited (UPL) – the same corporation who has to date not made any of its follow-up reports of the state of groundwater pollution public.
In a statement released on Thursday, UPL said a report written by independent specialists had been sent to the eThekwini municipality. The report contains chemical analyses of beaches and sea water conducted over the past few weeks. The last samples were said to have been taken on 8 September.
“The report recommends that all beaches are safe to be reopened following the arson attack against the UPL Cornubia warehouse on 12th of July 2021 during the widespread violence and looting that broke out across KwaZulu-Natal.”
According to said report, beaches and the ocean “outside a 1km exclusion zone, north, south and east of the mouth pose an extremely low chemical risk to the public regardless of whether the estuary mouth is open or closed”.
Ethekwini municipal spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela confirmed to The Citizen that beaches in Durban had not yet opened, but did not elaborate.
Report findings questioned
Environmental NGO groundWork’s health campaigner, epidemiologist and toxicologist, Rico Euripidou, questioned the declaration that beaches were declared safe by UPL, saying the behaviour exhibited by the company was “an assault on our democracy”.
“Right from the beginning, they controlled the flow of information, and didn’t disclose chemicals, not even to frontline workers.”
Euripidou said this had been the case for two and a half months, and with experts involved in clean-up and analysis operations having to sign non-disclosure agreements, this meant the public has not yet had access to any information to make informed decisions.
“So if UPL says beaches are safe, who knows if this is the case.”
Euripidou pointed out the chemicals leaked into the Ohlanga river and Umhlanga lagoon posed significant eco-toxicological and health risks.
Not disclosing the chemical lists, and potential risks and associated hazards, knowing communities such as Blackburn were 500m away, was “hugely problematic”.
He said UPL knew of subsistence fishermen using the coastline for their livelihoods, and that people grew vegetables nearby.
“If they were transparent, the authorities would have been able to put in place early measures to start picking up health impacts translating into long-term health impacts.”
He once again requested that UPL show groundWork and the general public their soil, water, sediment and fish tissue sampling.
UPL said thousands of litres of liquid waste had been removed from the Ohlanga River area, as well as solid waste from a nearby stream, and the site of the warehouse fire.
“UPL was a victim as much as any other businesses that [were] the target of violent destruction.”
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They said UPL’s focus, now that “some waterways” had been “decontaminated”, was to rehabilitate smaller areas of the Ohlanga River, and wetland systems.
They added a recent report conducted by the Marine and Estuarine Research consultancy found the large amount of dead fish along uMdloti beaches was due to “a natural occurrence”, namely “strong current and weather conditions”.
This, UPL said, caused dead fish to wash up along the coast, towards the uMhlanga estuary.
When The Citizen requested the report widely referenced in UPL’s statement, they said the responsibility lay with the eThekwini municipality to send it to the public, and that they were in possession of the report.
The company’s PR colleague said the municipality denied receiving the report, but that it had been sent, and that emails likely had not been checked. UPL hoped the municipality would “get their ducks in a row”, they added.
Mayisela said he was not aware of any report being sent to the municipality.
The Citizen has also repeatedly requested a full list of chemicals that leaked into surrounding environments, but has so far not received any information from UPL.
The list was provided by amaBhungane in August.