When looting, riots and unrest caused destruction in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal last week, no one anticipated demonstrations could result in a significant environmental catastrophe, which threatens communities and wildlife all the way down the Ohlanga river, right to Umhlanga Lagoon.
That is, until looters hit United Phosphorous Limited’s (UPL) massive warehouse in the Cornubia area north of Durban. Multiple fires set on 12 July were left smouldering for over a week as emergency services struggled to get to and put out the blaze.
Other than the warehouse being gutted, the undisclosed amount of toxic chemicals, including herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers being stored in the facility were exposed to surrounding environments.
UPL has only disclosed a handful of these chemicals, but Democratic Alliance (DA) spokesperson and MPL on economic development, tourism and environmental affairs Heinz de Boer says up to 1 000 different chemicals could have been stored in the warehouse.
The incident has thrust the locations of warehouses storing toxic products so close to residents, and the disregard for environmental sustainability, into the spotlight once again.
How was the environment destroyed?
When the blaze was reported, firefighters used water to douse the flames. This despite a call for specialist emergency services.
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The runoff, which contained all the chemicals housed in the warehouse, seeped into stormwater drains, in turn leaking into nearby rivers and lagoons, explained groundWork health campaigner, epidemiologist and toxicologist Rico Euripidou.
It is not yet known why water was used instead of foam, carbon dioxide or monoxide.
De Boer said fire hydrants in the business complex where the warehouse was situated were destroyed, leading him to suspect the attack was orchestrated.
Marine life is the most affected at present, but over time, more animals laden with chemicals will likely be consumed, leading to further ecosystem destruction.
Fish eagles and small mammals are already feeding on dead fish, and residents have reported dead pigeons in their yards – some many kilometres away.
“Any fauna or flora within that immediate zone where chemicals spilt will be impacted. Even hardier species such as tilapia have been killed,” Euripidou said.
How bad is it?
A graphic showing the extent of the UPL chemical leak so far. Infographic: Costa Makola/The Citizen
Euripidou explained the extent of the chemical spill can only be determined once dispersion modelling of smoke plumes is completed, and environmental sampling is complete. This includes taking samples of water and soil.
“The mixture of hazardous and plant remedy products, some of which are chlorinated to be formulated, play around with carbon and chlorine and molecular structure. If incinerated in the presence of organics, this can form dioxin and furans.
“If this persists, and accumulates in tissue [of humans and animals], there will be adverse health outcomes.”
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Euripidou also warned that the area’s groundwater has definitely been poisoned, which will cause acute toxicity and risks changing the chemico-physico properties of the immediate environment.
“The fact that hardier species have been killed off shows the extent of the toxicity.”
No official health warnings
The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and groundWork took it upon themselves to issue an unofficial health warning to unsuspecting residents complaining of foul smells and itchy skin on Tuesday.
Beaches north of KZN remain closed, with residents being told by UPL to lubricate dry noses with vaseline, gargle with extra virgin olive oil, and get out of the area if they can – solutions neither practical nor feasible for most residents, some living just hundreds of meters away from the polluted Ohlanga river and Umhlanga lagoon.
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But no healthcare practitioners in the area were warned by the National Department of Health.
“You can’t say it’s not a health concern when you haven’t done your sampling,” Euripidou said.
De Boer pained a bleak picture of the affected river and lagoon.
“The river has been running bright blue for days. The lagoon is a greenish grey. All the fish are dead, crayfish too. Although heavily polluted from years of raw sewage spills, this was the final nail in the coffin.”
Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa KZN north conservancy head Margaret Burger said she hoped unsuspecting marine life had “a sixth sense”.
The Ohlanga river has no tributaries, meaning no fresh water flows in or out of it. Because of this, pollution stagnates at a more rapid rate, and with no rain on the cards for the region, it is not yet known when the chemicals will dissipate.
From catfish to mullets, and even reports of tilapia, all fish in the river stood no chance.
Disturbingly, nearby Hawaan Forest, one of the last coastal forests left in eThekwini, and home to an array of buck, birds and other mammals, rely on the river to survive.
Burger and her team now put buckets of water in the forest, hoping this will discourage the animals from drinking from the river.
NGO Enviro Fixers’ Helen Koch was one of many who helped with the Queen Nandi cleanup. She said after her volunteer efforts, her shoes were corroded and her lips were sore.
Koch lives near the Cornubia area, and reported the river and lagoon’s acrid smells getting worse at nighttime, causing residents to cough and splutter, without being able to escape the chemicals.
Marine and aviation manager Francine Hattingh said many chemicals stored at UPL’s warehouse were banned overseas, but not in Africa.
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Hattingh has been lobbying for over a year to up air quality monitoring in Durban, but to no avail, and could not say what the current situation was due to the lack of air quality monitoring.
“Also of concern is whether this cargo was stored in an area zoned for storage of such chemicals, as it is a commercial/light industrial area.”
Is there any hope?
Many encouragingly said ecosystems would one day restore itself.
Others say this situation could have been prevented had the environment been prioritised, especially regarding factories used to dumping chemicals in rivers and oceans across the country.
But Janet Simpkins from Doctor River laments investigations into the disaster will take a long time.
“I’ve been working with rivers long enough to know this is not a quick fix. But it is not impossible.”
Although Simpkins said the fact that groundwater was polluted meant long-term side-effects, the reality was that rivers are polluted every day.
“Only after a disaster unfolds that’s visible do we realise the extent of the destruction. Ecosystems can revive, but the problem is we just don’t care for our rivers.”
When asked whether the area would be declared an environmental disaster as per section 30A of the National Environmental Management Act, the eThekwini responded with a statement issued on Tuesday, and vowed to revert. No responses have been received.
The Citizen asked UPL for comment on their fire safety protocols, but no responses were received either.