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UPL and Ethekwini lock horns over Ohlanga estuary environmental fallout

The dispute underscores the complexities of environmental management, the need for transparency and collaboration between industry and regulatory authorities.

Allegations by United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) that sewage overflow caused the dead fish in the Ohlanga estuary on April 6 are baseless and unfounded, says Ethekwini.

Large numbers of marine and freshwater fish washed up dead along surrounding beaches in the first weekend of April, causing concerns over water safety.

It has been two years and nine months since the disastrous chemical spill that resulted from the July 2021 arson attack on the leased Cornubia warehouse where extensive quantities of agricultural pesticides including insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and nematicides were being kept – a matter in which, for all intents and purposes, UPL is still an accused in a criminal matter.

Just over a week before the fish kill, UPL released a statement claiming due to extensive and ongoing rehabilitation efforts “the Ohlanga River, its estuary as well as the beach exclusion zone pose no threat to human health or the environment as a result of the fire and the spill”.

However, the company said a threat did exist in those areas from high levels of E.coli from failing sewage infrastructure.

Following the fish kill, UPL released another statement in which they claimed preliminary analysis suggested it was caused by untreated sewage overflows, rather than substances relating to the 2021 spill.

UPL said an independent environmental expert, along with a Department of Water and Sanitation official, conducted an investigation on April 6.

“Their findings showed 100% dissolved oxygen levels upstream and downstream of the UPL site. However, testing showed a significant drop to 65% dissolved oxygen in the Ohlanga River below Blackburn Village at the bridge, pointing to a factor in that area potentially affecting the river’s health.

This, along with the high levels of ammonia typically found in sewage, potentially led to the fish die-off.”

UPL further substantiated their allegations by claiming workers at the Blackburn sewage pump station

Confirmed that a sewage overflow occurred between April 5 and 6, and alleged it was a regular occurrence.

They also alleged similar infrastructure failures may have occurred around the same time at the Siyaba Node 2 and Waterloo sewage plants.

The Ohlanga estuary mouth where hundreds of fish died on April 6 due to yet unknown causes.

“In this context, UPL South Africa has again expressed concern to the municipality regarding the recurring sewage infrastructure issues. The elevated level of sewage is having a negative impact on the ongoing environmental remediation efforts of the Ohlanga River and the local aquatic ecosystem,” UPL said.

Responding to UPL’s claims, Ethekwini municipality spokesperson Gugu Sisilana pulled no punches.

She highlighted that UPL had no permits for toxic effluent to be discharged to the Ohlanga pump station.

She argued UPL’s media statement used phrases such as ‘suggests’, ‘likely’, ‘potentially’ and ‘typically’, which indicated they were merely speculating as to what could be the cause of the dead fish.

She said there was no conclusive evidence that confirmed the cause – something she said the municipality was busy investigating.

She added they were awaiting results from the marine and estuarine research team appointed to run tests on the water quality to determine the cause.

Refuting UPL’s allegations of a sewage spill, Sisilana said the Ohlanga pump station situated below Blackburn Village was currently fully operational and had been for the past three months post the January 13 storm.

She further argued that there were no reported fish kills during the devastating April/May 2022 floods when the Ohlanga pump station was inoperable for two weeks and about 26 million litres of sewerage were discharged into the Ohlanga River daily.

“The Sibiya Node 2 pump station is operational and allegations by UPL South Africa that this pump station is experiencing infrastructure failures is not true. Therefore, the allegations by UPL South Africa that sewage overflow had caused the fish kill are baseless and unfounded,” Sisilana said.

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