uMhlanga Lagoon Deathly Waters

On Friday 16th July, after hearing rumours that dead fish and crayfish were littering the uMhlanga Lagoon and beaches in uMhlanga and UmdIoti, I decided to drive to the area and find out what was happening.

At the entrance of the uMhlanga Lagoon, I met with Cllr. Rory Macpherson (DA) who’s trying very hard to assist and control the situation.

Mr Macpherson informed me that on Monday 12th July, the looting of a factory in the Cornubia area had led to multiple fires, including a warehouse [UPL] storing pesticides and other farming chemicals.

While the firefighters tried to fight the blaze started by riots, the polluted water ran down through stormwater drains reaching the river system and into the local uMhlanga Lagoon, killing all marine life.

The team of Spill Tech was now at the lagoon trying to prevent the polluted water from entering the ocean.

After spending some time at the lagoon taking pictures of the dead fish being removed by the Spill Tech team, I went to observe the factory.

At the factory site, which was still smouldering, Drizit Spill Technologies Oil and Chemical Pollution control were busy cleaning the debris and spill. All fire hydrants in the immediate area had been destroyed by the rioters, adding further challenges to an already exacting situation.

LensTraveller - Photographer - uMhlanga Lagoon Pollution 2021

Affected Communities

Although no cases of acute human toxicity have been reported UPL Press Release, Monday 19th July, residents are concerned about the long-term health effects and risk to people exposed to smoke from the warehouse.

All residents are cautioned strongly against approaching the warehouse area where the industrial cleaning team is working to clean up the site, said a UPL spoke person on a media release.

In a press release issued on Sunday 18th July, authorities urged the public to refrain from picking up and collecting dead marine life off the Umdloti and uMhlanga coastline. They have been contaminated with toxic chemicals and could be harmful to humans.

The public is reminded that the beaches north of the Umgeni River are closed as a precautionary measure. The public is advised to refrain from recreational activities, including fishing or surfing, bait collection, and picking up dead species. Collecting or harvesting any marine living resource in the area is temporarily prohibited until the cause is determined and the threat subsides.

LensTraveller - Photographer - uMhlanga Lagoon Pollution 2021

On Tuesday 20th July, the factory is still smouldering, and the chemicals continue to pour into the river and the ocean. A strong chemical smell has also penetrated the air.

A large informal settlement is located next to the highly contaminated area.

Residents of the uMhlanga area have reported intense chemical fumes, while surfers have complained of skin burns.

The area directly surrounding the polluted rivers and soil, is all sugarcane fields. On Wednesday 21 July, sugarcanes workers were busy cutting and harvesting those contaminated sugar canes and having their lunches next to the riverbeds.

High scale chain contamination is possible from the use of animal products from animals grazing on areas affected the polluted river and other toxins in the air and soil.

Containing the Unfolding Disaster

There have been lots of discussions among various environmental entities on how to control and assist the situation. Some agree that blocking the river water from flowing into the sea will help to isolate the disaster area and contain it from further polluting the sea. Others advised to let the polluted water flow into the ocean and be diluted by the power of the sea.

The environmental entities in charge have collected water and sediment samples from the polluted rivers in the area, and they are now waiting for results on the toxic components.

uMhlanga Lagoon has turned turquoise, and its ecosystem is entirely dead. Despite all the efforts of the cleaning services, this environmental disaster is not yet contained or under control, and the aftermath has just begun. Birds have now started feeding on the contaminated fish and other sea life, and it’s just the beginning of a long-term chain of environmental catastrophe.

According to other sources assisting with the situation, at this stage the scale and proportion of contamination as well as health risks for humans, etc, is unknown.

On my last visit to the affected areas (Wednesday 21 July), I noticed several containers full of dead wildlife. What is going to happened to it and how is it going to be disposed of?

Spill Tech is trying extremely hard to clean up and remove the contaminated water that is still flowing into the water system and into the rivers.  I was informed by someone on site that approximately 90 000 litres of contaminated water is pumped from the rivers every day and stored in tanks whilst waiting for further instructions on how to treat it or dispose of it.

South African authorities urge the public to refrain from picking up and collecting dead marine life off the Umdloti and uMhlanga coastline. They have been contaminated with toxic chemicals and could be harmful to humans.

The public is also reminded that the beaches north of the Umgeni River are closed as a precautionary measure. The public is also advised to refrain from recreational activities, including fishing or surfing, bait collection, and picking up dead species.

Collecting or harvesting any marine living resource in the area is temporarily prohibited until the cause is determined and the threat has diminished.

A specialised chemical clean-up company has been appointed to clean up the spill as well as any contamination, including the marine life. Special clean-up crews are on-site to deal with the collection and disposal of dead marine and bird life in a responsible manner.

Authorities are continuously monitoring the area to determine the extent of the impact of the spill. Thus far, there has been fish kill only in the uMhlanga Estuary and beach area and Umdloti beach.

The fish kill follows the toxic chemical spill into the uMhlanga Estuary after a chemical warehouse was burnt down during this week’s unrest. Based on specialist advice, the river mouth has been left open to help dilute the contamination in the lagoon.

Update – 23 August 2021

Six weeks after deadly toxins from the fire of the UPL warehouse were released into the air, ground, Ohlanga river systems, uMhlanga Nature Reserve and into the Indian Ocean, and still no answers.

*What investigations have been conducted as to the cause and effect of this disaster, and if none, why there has been no investigation?

*How much toxic waste has been collected in the clean up of the site, and how is such waste being disposed of, and where, and by whom?

*What has happened to the tons of dead marine life collected and disposed of, and where and how such disposal took place?

*Has any testing been ordered to establish the cause of the death of marine life?

*What air quality samples were taken and tested, and what were the results of those tests?

*Why was the chemical storage facility allowed to be constructed and maintained within such close proximity to residential areas, schools, and river systems?

And of utmost importance: 
*What steps have been taken to assess the impact of the fire and continued contamination on the drinking water utilised by the public; the effects on surrounding agricultural activities, specifically the neighbouring sugarcane fields currently being harvested for public consumption?

Due to the unknown cocktail of chemicals that have contaminated the area, EThekwini Municipality still maintains a public reminder that the beaches north of the uMngeni River, including Durban North beach up to Salt Rock, will remain closed until further notice.

UPDATE – 2 SEPTEMBER 2021

Criminal charges laid in what is poised to be one of the biggest environmental legal battles in SA history

By Heinz de Boer, MPL – DA KZN Spokesperson on Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs

The Democratic Alliance (DA) in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) can today confirm that specialist investigators have finally been appointed to criminally charge UPL, following the arson attack on its Cornubia factory and the subsequent environmental disaster.

The announcement was made during a KZN Environmental Affairs portfolio committee held earlier this morning. The DA can further confirm that the charge has been laid at Verulam SAPS under CAS 06/09/2021 for environmental pollution.

The cat and mouse game that UPL has engaged in – with both provincial authorities and the public – should come to an end, following the laying of criminal charges.

This is sure to be the first of many criminal and civil claims against the company – with two specialist investigators from national and provincial governments leading the charge.

The charges come after UPL has continued to provide unsatisfactory reports and remedial actions according to Provincial Environmental Affairs officials. In addition, UPL – which has from the outset remains tight-lipped on its inventory and potential culpability in the matter – is now accused of;

– Receiving results of water, sediment, and soil samples but not providing an interpretation of the sampling results

– Allegedly receiving the sample analysis reports and simply informing provincial authorities that beaches should remain closed and;

– Unsatisfactory responses to NEMA S30 notices issues to the company.

While the docket is now set to be investigated by the Green Scorpions, the DA welcomes EDTEA MEC Ravi Pillay’s assurances that further criminal charges will be added by eight provincial and national departments, which are intensively investigating the entire UPL saga.

In spite of the fact that it has taken authorities some seven weeks to reach the level of laying charges, it is encouraging that this will now be the beginning of what is poised to be one of the biggest environmental legal battles in South African history.

The DA will ensure these charges are not paper charges but that they lead to convictions. A clear message must be sent that our environment and the health of our citizens should not be trifled with.

Media Enquiries

Heinz de Boer, MPL
DA KZN Spokesperson on Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs
083 973 1551

Lauren Silen
Media Liaison to the DA in the KZN Legislature
083 779 9009

UPDATE – 15 SEPTEMBER

Dead octopus washed ashore in Salt Rock beach yesterday morning. Over the weekend, hundreds of freshwater fish washed up in Umdloti beaches; and early last week, over 20 young children got sick after a short surfing section in Battery Beach near Snake Park in Durban North. #durbandeathlywaters

As part of my journalistic investigation on the recent chemical spill from a warehouse that burned down during the #riots last July, I took photographs of the dead octopus, bagged it and took it for toxicity testing.

STATEMENT ON THE CLOSURE OF CENTRAL AND NORTH OF UMNGENI RIVER TO SALT ROCK BEACHES!

Central Beaches

The City would like to inform the public that central beaches are closed for bathing and any other sporting activity, with immediate effect. This decision is in the interest of the safety of residents and tourists. This follows signs of beyond normal E-coli levels in the water. The city moved with speed to conduct tests after seeing murky waters in some beaches and results showed a positive presence of these bacteria.

Teams are currently hard at work on a malfunctioning sewer pump station that is constantly vandalised for scrap metals and work is at an advanced stage to remedy the situation.

Beaches that are safe for the public to use are:

  • Pipeline beach
  • Amanzimtoti main beach
  • Warner beach
  • Winkelspruit beach
  • Reunion beach
  • Umgababa beach

North of Umngeni River Beaches – All beaches north of the Umgeni River up to Salt Rock, remain closed!

The city is appealing to the public not to embark on any activity until the water quality has been determined as safe and an official communication from the city has been issued in this regard.

Beaches were closed in July as a precautionary measure following a chemical spill which contaminated the Ohlange River and Umhlanga Lagoon.

The city is aware of the significance of this long weekend, but it has a responsibility of guarding against anything that poses a threat to the public and tourists.

At this point in time, eThekwini is awaiting the final and signed off report from UPL’s specialists. This requirement came out of a workshop with UPL and their specialists on the 8th September 2021. The submissions received prior to this workshop were inadequate. They did not reference the spill or site in question and were riddled with errors about the concentrations of toxins. In some cases, the submissions were unsigned and as a result they were unacceptable and rejected on that basis. A consolidated report is expected early next week after which an independent peer review process will take place.

The final report on beach opening will be made available to the public at the same time it is sent for peer review.

The public are asked to be patient and comply with requests from authorities. Any inconvenience is regretted; however the safety of the public is of utmost importance.

Issued by Communications
Media Enquiries: Msawakhe Mayisela 060 966 4220

UPDATE – 7 OCTOBER

The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment [DFFE] has released a preliminary report into the company responsible for a devastating chemical spill in Durban in July.

Almost three months ago, on the 12th July, during the unrest that rocked KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, the United Phosphorus Limited [UPL] warehouse in Cornubia was set alight, sending chemical fumes into the air.

It appears that the agrochemical giant was storing hazardous pesticides there but may not have been upfront with authorities on the dangers. A criminal case has been opened.

Beaches along the so-called Golden Mile were closed, and some still remain closed. And the recent report suggests that high levels of chemicals were found in soil and water samples close to the Black Burn informal settlement.

HOW HAS UPL GOTTEN AWAY WITH FLOUTING THE LAW?

According to Mrs Barbara Creecy, Minister of the DFFE, the primary UPL compliance report finds that UPL was not compliant with the requirement to have an ‘Environmental Impact Assessment ‘, which UPL should have requested from the provincial government. The report also finds that UPL were not in compliance with the Health and Safety and other municipal bylaws; by doing so, UPL would have been defined as a ‘major hazard institute’, an obligation on UPL’s part.

‘When a company, especially a foreign company, comes to our country, they have the duty to inform themselves of the legal, regulatory environment,” said Mrs Creecy.

Mrs Creecy also stated that UPL did not the ‘Risk Assessment’ and were not known to be a major hazard institute. When the fire woke up on the 12the of July, the firemen were not aware of what was stored in the warehouse. The firemen used water to dust the fire. The consequences of using thousands of litres of water for a ten-day period to downsize the fore led to a massive volume of toxic water flooding into the Umhlanga river and into the Umhlanga Lagoon. An entire ecosystem is now dead, there are no living organisms, and the vegetation has been destroyed.

“We have collected more than 3 tons of dead fish and crustaceans from the Umhlanga Lagoon, and from the Lagoon, these substances /toxic chemicals into the sea’, adds Mrs Creecy.

DANGER TO LIFE AND HEALTH. DOES THE PUBLIC KNOW HOW DANGEROUS THESE CHEMICALS ARE?

Insecticides stored on the UPL Warehouse contained methanol, arsenic and other neurotoxins, which are extremely dangerous when on fire. The uninformed firefighters and members of the nearby communities were breathing those toxic fumes in. 

According to Mrs Creecy, the firemen are part of the population group that has been sampled in ongoing basic. There is a major concern from a public health perspective, as they might not see any immediate signs of impact on their health. A long term, on the relevant population, to ensure that there are no long term impacts on their health, in currently being conducted.

“This process is being coordinated by the Public Health eThekwnei and the Provincial Department of Health.” Said Mrs Creecy. “And it will involve taking random samples from the population over several months, and a lot of work has been done on public education and awareness.”

WHAT IS NEXT FOR UPL?

“A criminal investigation lead by the Green Scorpions is ongoing. Once the relevant sampling and other documentation on the findings are finalised, the investigation will be handed to the National Director of Public Prosecutions [NDPP], who will decide on prosecution, and a court of law will make the finding,” said Mrs Creecy.

LensTraveller - Photographer - uMhlanga Lagoon Pollution 2021

UPDATE – 20 SEPTEMBER

A chemical emissions inventory had been finalised and estimated that the UPL warehouse that burned down on 12th of July contained 2,339,055 kg of pesticides, 3,003,401 kg of combustibles and 35,378 kg of flammables (giving a combined total of at least five thousand tonnes of potentially toxic pollutants),’ says a report by Metamorphosis Environmental Consultants coordinator Vicki King.

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