News ยป Durban

Thabiso Goba
5 minute read
4 Oct 2021
06:29

Report shows UPL was operating without environmental licences

Thabiso Goba

The infamous United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) chemical warehouse in Cornubia, northern Durban, was operating without multiple environmental licences at the time of the catastrophic July fire.

The infamous United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) chemical warehouse in Cornubia, northern Durban, was operating without multiple environmental licences at the time of the catastrophic July fire.

This was one of the findings in a preliminary investigative report into compliance issues at the warehouse, which was released by the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DEFF), Barbara Creecy yesterday.

“The probe will also take into account the liability of other role-players that may have been involved in this matter.”
DEFF minister, Barbara Creecy.

The UPL warehouse was torched in July during the civil unrest that took hold of Kwazulu-Natal. A cocktail of hazardous chemicals from the warehouse subsequently flowed into the nearby rivers and beaches, resulting in large-scale deaths of marine life.

Over 13 million tons of contaminated solids, 3 755 kg of dead fish and over 23,4 million litres of contaminated liquids were removed from the affected sites.

The toxic fumes that smouldered for about two weeks from the torched warehouse negatively affected the air quality of residential areas in Durban North.

“An independent team of investigators comprising environmental management inspectors from both the national and provincial departments have initiated a criminal investigation [against UPL],” said Creecy.

ALSO READ | Criminal charges against UPL for chemicals stored in torched Durban factory.

This investigation, she said, was being undertaken in line with the Criminal Procedure Act and involves the collection of evidence, including sampling of, amongst others, sand, water, fish and plants to determine criminal liability in relation to the harm that has been caused to the environment.

“The probe will also take into account the liability of other role-players that may have been involved in this matter,” she said, adding that the criminal case was opened at the Verulam police station.

Findings detailed in the DEFF’s preliminary report revealed that UPL was not in possession of environmental authorisations prior to opening their warehouse.

No environmental authorisation 

“The findings indicate that UPL was not in possession of the requisite environmental authorisation prior to establishing its operations in Cornubia three months before the incident,” said Creecy.

The authorisation should have been obtained from the KZN Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs.

The company also had not conducted a major hazard installation (MHI) risk assessment as well as an environmental impact assessment for storage of dangerous goods, nor did it possess a scheduled activities permit. By not conducting an MHI assessment, UPL avoided being listed as an MHI, the report stated.

“Had the UPL undertaken this process, it would [have helped], considering the significant volumes and nature of the chemicals stored at this particular location. These assessments would have determined the emergency readiness of the facility in the face of a disaster such as a fire,” said Creecy.

The warehouse had been in operation for three months before it was torched.

“The danger has not yet passed, but in time with enough remediate attention we hope that the environment will recover and those responsible for this incident, directly or indirectly, will own up to it and take responsibility for their actions.”
DEFF minister, Barbara Creecy.

Francis Craigie, chief director of enforcement at DEFF, explained that the building plan and subdivision of the warehouse for use by UPL and storage of inflammable liquids was recommended for approval by eThekwini Fire.

“However, approval for occupation would only have been supported after the subdivision was constructed and was deemed compliant with fire requirements, which was required before the business could be operated,” she said.

“The unlawful establishment and operation of the UPL facility created a point source of pollution in that particular location [which is] close to a river system, a residential neighbourhood, a sensitive protected area and the coastal environment.”

Probe into how regulations were bypassed

Creecy told media that part of the ongoing investigation was finding out how UPL managed to bypass all these necessary regulations.

One of the recommendations from the report is creating a baseline assessment programme for all agro-chemical and manufacturing companies to avoid a similar incidents in future. While UPL recently released a statement saying that beaches in the area were safe again, Creecy yesterday stated that the area still remained an “emergency situation”.

“The danger has not yet passed, but in time with enough remediate attention we hope that the environment will recover and those responsible for this incident, directly or indirectly, will own up to it and take responsibility for their actions,” said Creecy.

“In order to ensure long-term monitoring of the affected communities the authorities requested UPL to place a mobile clinic in the affected communities on a semi-permanent basis, and to extend the human health risk assessment to include biological monitoring of the affected community.”
DEFF minister Barbara Creecy.

Much of the clean-up operations have been funded by UPL to a tune of over R177 million.

Despite that, Creecy said all information shared by experts paid for by UPL had to undergo rigorous peer review by independent experts.

She added that DEFF did not have the authority to pronounce guilt on UPL and that could only be done by a court of law.

A full report is expected to be completed soon and handed over to authorities for possible prosecution of UPL.

“The threat to human health remains an important concern for government. In order to ensure long-term monitoring of the affected communities the authorities requested UPL to place a mobile clinic in the affected communities on a semi-permanent basis, and to extend the human health risk assessment to include biological monitoring of the affected community,” said Creecy.