Smoke has cleared but damage is done after Engen oil refinery explosion

Engen's oil refinery in Wentworth south of Durban exploded on Friday. Picture: Supplied

The long-term health impacts of living in close proximity to a refinery, other than the unpleasant rotten egg smell permeating the air, can include cancer, congenital disabilities and neurological damage. 

The scene outside the Engen oil refinery in Wentworth, south of Durban, that exploded on Friday morning has been cleared. 

Rescue Care spokesperson Gareth Jamieson confirmed that seven people had been taken to hospital, mostly for smoke inhalation, with another patient injured while running away from the explosion. 

There may well have been more injuries if the explosion happened slightly later, as workers usually only arrived at the refinery at around 7am. 

But despite the thick haze of smoke having cleared by around 7:30am, this incident is not an isolated one.

The Engen refinery in question was commissioned in 1954, and refines roughly 120,000 barrels of crude oil per day. 

Rotten egg smell

For more than 65 years, the refinery has caused an array of serious health issues for nearby residents, according to environmental non-governmental organisation (NGO) GroundWork.

It warned that exposure to high concentrations of sulphur dioxide, such as an incident such as the one on Friday, could lead to irritation of the eyes, nose, mouth and throat, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, headaches, and even death. 

The long-term health impacts of living in close proximity to a refinery, other than the unpleasant rotten egg smell permeating the air, can include cancer, congenital disabilities and neurological damage. 

GroundWork’s director Bobby Peek said the true damage caused by the explosion may never be fully known, due to the dismantled air pollution monitoring system that was in place in the region 15 years ago.

According to him, there was not sufficient air quality monitoring in Durban South.

Part of a block of flats near the refinery reportedly also caught fire after the explosion. Picture: Supplied

Residents with asthma are even more at risk, as well as young children and the elderly, GroundWork said.

A study done by GroundWork showed that schoolchildren in Durban who attended classes close to the refinery were up to 40% more likely to suffer from respiratory problems than kids that lived more than 10km away.  

Houses shook and dogs barked

Bluff resident Tessa Richards lives just 4.7km away from the refinery. She recounted to The Citizen how her entire house shook when explosion took place this morning.

Dogs – still recovering from Durban’s Diwali celebrations – were rattled and barking wildly, and bewildered neighbours came rushing into the streets in their pyjamas trying to ensure that everyone was safe, she said.

The refinery on a sunny day. Picture: GroundWork

“They put residents close to the refinery. Wentworth started out as an army barracks, and then became a coloureds-only area. There is a long history of a community very badly treated by government.”

Big corporations ‘destroying’ Durban

Greenpeace Africa released a scathing statement, calling on Engen, government and other polluters in the area, such as Transnet, to clean up their act. 

According to Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner, Nhlanhla Sibisi, three environmental disasters including the Engen fire have occurred this year alone. 

The first was a crude oil from Transnet spilling into the Umbilo River, and a motor vehicle accident caused by a fuel tanker, which claimed twelve lives. 

“The fossil fuel industry has proven repeatedly that it is a threat to the environment and human health. It is more apparent than ever before that what South Africa needs is a decisive phasing-out of the fossil fuel industry – this is a matter of life or death, an imperative to put people over profits.

“Air pollution is costing South Africa billions in healthcare and loss of lives. Rampant respiratory problems that have afflicted communities in the South Durban Basin have been as a result of Engen’s operations, including other refinery related processes…

“This is not the first time, and it won’t be the last until decisive action is taken. The time for complacency is over.

The refinery is ISO 9001 and 14001 certified, which references quality management system and environmental management system respectively. 

However, GroundWork said refineries in South Africa were not required to monitor fugitive emissions, which is when air pollution escapes through equipment leaks. 

An explosion such as at the Engen refinery in Wentworth could cause a significant increase in pollution, which GroundWork said could result “in more acute exposures to pollutants and greater health impacts”.

It is not yet clear what could have caused the explosion.

Other than the oil refinery, Durban is also home to an Engen lubricating oils blend plant, as well as the Zenex blend plant, which also produces various types of lubricating oils. 

The SAPREF refinery, a joint venture between Shell SA Energy and BP Southern Africa, is also located in Durban South, and has been operating for 45 years. It is the largest crude oil refinery in sub-Saharan Africa. 

The company’s representatives were not immediately available for comment. Updates to follow as more information is received. 

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