Durban UPL Cornubia pollution
Google Maps image showing the flow (yellow) and extent (blue) of the contamination (Google Maps/Presentation to portfolio committee on environment, forestry, and fisheries)
  • The United Phosphorus Limited warehouse in Cornubia smouldered for a week in July amid looting and unrest.
  • It housed approximately 5,000 tons of chemicals, which were either burnt in the initial blaze or leaked into the nearby river and estuary.
  • This includes pesticides, rodenticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fumigants made up of more than 1,600 chemicals.
  • It's feared that highly toxic persistent organic pollutants have been unleashed on the surrounding area.
  • These chemicals are known to cause cancer.
  • But the chemical company is tight-lipped on the exact contents of its now-gutted warehouse, prompting further concerns among both health and environmental activists.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

The United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) warehouse in KwaZulu-Natal burned for nine days during the period of civil unrest in that province, spilling hazardous chemical waste into the surrounding water systems. The damage to aquatic life, the the threat to the health of nearby communities, is likely to linger for years.

The unrest is estimated to have cost the already beleaguered economy between R35 billion and R50 billion, and more than 300 lives were lost. But the cost of the environmental damage, from a single warehouse, will be hard to pin down. The gutted UPL warehouse in Cornubia oozed a cocktail of more than 1,600 chemicals into the Mhlanga tributary, contaminating the Umhlanga estuary on its way out to the beach.

Like the unrest itself, the chemical contamination has also left a visceral trail of destruction. More than three tons of dead marine life which inhabited the tributary, estuary and nearby shallow sea waters have been collected by a team of investigators tasked with assessing the extent of the contamination.

The team, comprising of officials from the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment, water and sanitation, KwaZulu-Natal's department of economic development, tourism and environmental affairs, and Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife recently conducted an oversight visit to the affected areas.

What they found, presented to the portfolio committee on environment, forestry, and fisheries on Wednesday, is cause for great concern. Pesticides, rodenticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fumigants stored in the UPL warehouse have polluted the surrounding area from both the sky – as fumes sent aloft by flames – and in the water.

Investigators admit that these pollutants are likely to have an impact on the food chain and nearby sugarcane fields. Fish, crabs, and other marine life continue to die. Vegetation along the riverbanks and estuary has begun to die.

Dioxins and furans, cancer-causing chemicals

Residents have been urged to stay clear of the area, but for nearby communities, the toxic seepage is unavoidable.

"There were some reports of surfers that reported skin irritation in the sea, which is really worrying because it means the concentration, even in the ocean, was so high that people were experiencing health impacts in the acute phase," Rico Euripidou, the director of environmental justice organisation, groundWork, tells Business Insider South Africa.

"In the chronic phase, this is where we’re even more concerned. We know that there were chlorinated pesticides in that fire and when you have chlorinated products combusted incompletely with other organic material… that’s the precursor for the formation of what’s called persistent organic pollutants.”

These pollutants, generally referred to as dioxins and furans, are highly toxic and last in the environment for a very long time, "hundreds of years" says Euripidou. These chemicals are absorbed by crops and livestock, which ultimately ends up in humans, with devastating, long-lasting consequences.

"In humans and animals, we know that dioxins and furans are responsible for cancers. This class of chemical is very good at causing cancers, to the extent that some people describe them as the most dangerous class of chemical on earth," says Euripidou.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) notes that short-term exposure to these chemicals may result in skin lesions and altered liver function. Long-term exposure impacts the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system, and reproductive functions.

"The reason we anticipate a massive public health impact is because some of these pesticides and chemicals are highly hazardous. I've seen an abridged inventory and counted at least five of them that are banned in other jurisdictions around the world on the basis of health and environmental concerns," says Euripidou.

Activists want UPL to compensate victims

Environmental activists argue that UPL should have notified government and surrounding communities about the risks associated with storing hazardous materials, in line with provisions of the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA).

The exact contents of UPL's warehouse is still unknown, which poses a problem in diagnosing the contamination's true impact on the environment and humans.

GroundWork and a host of other activists are demanding that this information be made public and that UPL and other entities involved, including landlord Fortress Real Estate, compensate anyone who suffers damages as a result of the warehouse fire.

"We know that the inventory was 1,600 plus chemicals and it was about 5,000 tons, but the company [UPL], even to this day, hasn't disclosed the exact chemicals and the exact ingredients,” says Euripidou.

"The fact that they haven't disclosed this information is, in my mind, the most concerning thing. The questions [which must be asked] are did this company act responsibly, did it follow the law, did it have all the [safety] measures in place, [and] the licenses in place to store these chemicals.”

In response to the disaster, UPL provided a list of products which were stored in the warehouse to Dr Gerhard Verdoorn.

"In his view, there is a minimal risk of any long-term effects to the health of people exposed to smoke from the warehouse," UPL said in a statement on 19 July. The company has not provided an update on the contaminated water systems except for urging residents in the area to "avoid contact with the affected water sources."

Government departments say that they've enlisted a lab to conduct tests on up to 90 products which have leaked into the water system and that results of the chemical analysis should be available by 20 August.

Full wetland rehabilitation not a near-term reality 

In the meantime, government agencies are attempting to mitigate the impact by blocking stormwater discharge points, pumping out contaminated water, and removing solid waster from the area. Water will be drained from river sections to allow clean-up crews to remove contaminated sediment.

Water and air sampling will continue over the next few months, and a "full wetland rehabilitation" process will start "after removal of contaminated effluent and sediment."

But this process is fraught with hurdles and won't be an overnight fix.

"Water goes wherever it wants to, water seeps into the groundwater, water flows along preferential pathways underground where we can't see it. So, if you think that you can successfully do this now, I don't think that's realistic. Remediation is a very long process and will take a long time to understand the extent of the contamination," says Euripidou.

"They still don't know what's in the groundwater [and] which chemicals are prevalent over each other."

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