South Africa chemicals warehouse fire poses environmental and health risks
During violent protests in South Africa following the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma in July, a huge agrochemical warehouse containing more than 1,600 highly toxic chemicals was set on fire, spitting out hazardous materials in the air, a nearby river and a wetland during the ten consecutive days that the fire raged.
UPL (formerly United Phosphorus Limited), the Indian multinational which owns the 14,000 square meter (151,000 square feet) warehouse in the port city of Durban, located in the southeastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, remained elusive about the exact types and quantities of chemicals that were in storage in the warehouse at the time of the fire. But investigations by the media and environmentalists have revealed that most of these chemicals have been banned in many parts of the world due to their absolute dangers to life and the environment.
As authorities and environmentalists seek comprehensive answers, residents have serious health concerns, including the possibility of birth defects in the near future.
Tons of fish and other aquatic creatures washed up in the nearby Umhlanga estuary, with environmentalists worried about the impact on birds and wildlife that fed on the dead sea creatures.
The company absolves itself of all blame
When FairPlanet reached out to UPL spokesperson Craig Dodds to comment on reports that some of the warehouse chemicals were blacklisted in the EU and other global markets, and on information according to which regulatory measures were not followed when the warehouse was established, Dodds simply shared a previous statement that absolved the company of any wrongdoing.
“UPL has shared all required information with the relevant authorities and the company promptly made all necessary statutory notifications,” the Dodds statement read. “As part of its regular reporting, the company had kept the authorities informed of the nature 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.
The company admits the damage caused
The declaration acknowledged, however, that a disaster had occurred. “Many water-based products in the warehouse were atomized during the fire, creating a dense plume of smoke and fumes that caused distress to many people in neighboring areas,” the statement said. .
“Because a large volume of water was used to extinguish the fire and due to the late response of spill response clean-up services amid the ongoing unrest, the product that did not was vaporized and water from fire operations overwhelmed the containment system and escaped into the environment.
“Water contaminated with a combination of these products, including pesticides, flowed into the stormwater system, the surrounding platform, and valley lines in the Umhlanga River, damaging plants and marine organisms on the river. its passage. “
Questionable EIA pass
Mark Laing, a South African citizen, took to social media to raise questions about the curious circumstances under which the company had successfully obtained an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for its warehouse.
“How did UPL pass the EIA for this facility when there was no retention berm around the facility? Laing wrote. “You can see it clearly in the photos of the drone, with a bird’s eye view of the site. The idea of a dike or berm (either a ditch or high walls around the perimeter of the site) is that, if there is a fire or a toxic compound spill, then the toxic compounds must be restrained. in the installation, with any water sprayed on the fire to extinguish the fire.
“This is a basic global EIA requirement for all sites storing toxic compounds,” he added.
Bheki Mbanjwa, spokesman for the provincial government of KwaZulu-Natal was quoted in local media refusing to comment on who is to blame for the disaster and what action would be taken against them.
“We cannot make statements or take action based on speculation,” Mbanjwa said. “The issues at stake in the UPL case will be dealt with in a thorough and professional manner. Anyone who faces consequences will, whether in terms of rehabilitation liability, public health issues, or even criminal prosecution. “
Environmentalists are very worried
David Allan, curator of the Durban Museum of Natural Sciences, told FairPlanet that although he was not directly involved in the spill investigation, from what he had previously observed, the danger to life and environment was great.
“The short-term effects of the spill have already proved disastrous. And the indications are definitely that we can expect this to spread over the long term, ”Allan told FairPlanet.
“Poisons can often lead to ‘bioaccumulation’ whereby organisms higher in the food chain obtain increasingly toxic levels of the material they feed on lower in the food chain,” Allan added. “Birds are quite high in the food chain, indeed some, like the African eagle (a couple of which have lived in the estuary for a long time), are in fact at the top of these chains and particularly vulnerable. So we can expect fish-eating birds to be perhaps the most affected and invertebrate eaters perhaps least. Phytophagous birds (including seed eaters) could be the least affected.
Allan said a detailed investigation was needed to establish precise knowledge of the chemicals involved and the amounts involved, as well as expert input from pesticide experts, in order to formulate appropriate mitigation measures.
Devastating impact 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 they obtained showed that the warehouse held more than 5,000 tonnes of chemicals, the inventory including around 1,600 pesticides, agrochemicals and agro-products – some of which are classified as highly hazardous and are banned in the EU.
“The devastating impact on aquatic life from the acute phase deadly pesticides and herbicides was almost immediate, around five tonnes of aquatic and marine life were collected by specialized chemical spill response teams, but the threat to the health of neighboring communities is more likely. last for many years, ”Euripidou said.
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 lessons from the history of similar environmental and public health disasters,” he said. “In particular in July 1976, a fire at an agrochemicals manufacturing plant just north of Milan in Italy resulted in a release of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (‘TCDD’ or ‘dioxin’) ), a highly toxic by-product that has had profound human and environmental impacts on the nearby small town of Seveso.
“Immediately afterwards, domestic and farm animals were particularly affected and even though the human population was evacuated, many adverse human health effects, such as cancer, were recorded in populations at risk decades after the disease. incident, ”Euripidou said.
Allan of the Durban Natural Science Museum added that in order to avoid such incidents in the future, there is a “need to be more aware of facilities like this, to have environmental assessments, regulations and safeguards in place to minimize their risks (including a careful assessment of where they are), and most importantly, we need to enforce those safeguards. ”
“We have to make sure that facilities like these are prepared even for the most unlikely events, such as the civil unrest that has occurred,” he said.
The company registers complaints
The UPL, which says it is working to mitigate the effects of the disaster, has since started inviting people and organizations wishing to file complaints about the incident.
“Any company or person wishing to file a complaint due to the incident should complete the UPL Cornubia Warehouse Fire Complaint Form and deliver the complaint form to UPL,” the company said in its 26th statement. August.
Image by: Meddy Huduti