Concerns raised as chemicals from torched Durban plant threaten health, wildlife

The UPL Chemical Plant in Cornubia in Durban, which housed 1,600 hazardous materials, was torched during this month's riots. The fire has continued to burn for days, with concerns being raised over the impact on the environment and residents' health.

The UPL chemical plant in Durban is still smouldering days after it was torched in the riots and looting that hit the area in July. Picture: @DA_KZN/Twitter

CAPE TOWN - Following the recent violent events, authorities are dealing with another crisis - the short- and long-term impact on the environment.

For more than seven days, chaos broke out in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal when looters ransacked businesses and other entities.

But others took their sinister actions even further, burning property without any consideration for the consequences.

In KwaZulu-Natal, one of the targets was a chemical plant in Durban, which housed 1,600 hazardous materials and continued to smoulder for several days.

The UPL Chemical Plant in Cornubia in Durban is situated near the uMhlanga lagoon and the Ohlanga River, which feeds into the Indian Ocean.

When the warehouse went up in flames last Monday and continued to burn for days, it was clear that the damage would be huge. And it wasn’t confined to the torched site.

The water flowing into the lagoon has now turned turquoise, and dead fish have washed ashore, pointing to the extent of the toxic spill.

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Specialists in marine biology, water, air, chemicals, estuaries and others were still awaiting test results to determine the severity of the pollution.

Dr Kevin Winter is an environmental and geographical scientist at the University of Cape Town.

“The threat is serious on marine life, and it may take a long time before that begins to recover. Of course, it's not only fish, it's also crustaceans and birdlife that have died in the actual spill,” he said.

Air pollution also remains a major concern, as firefighters continue to douse the still smouldering debris.

“A lot of the gases that people have been breathing in there have been very high in sulphur, that could affect, particularly, people with respiratory illnesses.”

KwaZulu-Natal Environmental Affairs Department's Sphume Nowele described the levels of toxicity after the chemical spillage and air pollution in parts of the province: “It is serious, and it should not be underestimated in any way.”

Most urgent and concerning was the blaze at the UPL Pesticide Plant, where firefighters have spent days dousing the flames.

“Firefighters also need to be protected, because you don't want to be moving stuff there and then it collapses on the firefighters. So, that is the sensitivity of the matter and that's why it's taking longer than expected to kill that fire completely,” Nowele said.

She said that because of the acts of violence last week, facilities were closed, and samples only made it to laboratories on Monday.

Preliminary results are expected as early as Wednesday and will be assessed by a team of specialists.

Other samples will take longer to analyse after being sent overseas.

“We are going to be getting those results so that we can make informed decisions in terms of what happens moving forward.”

Beaches in the vicinity remain closed to the public and while some businesses are desperate to reopen, they’ve been advised that this was not safe, as the damage and its costs were evaluated.

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