South Africa: More Must Be Done to Address the Umhlanga Toxic Chemical Emergency

press release

Today, the DA visited the Umhlanga area in Durban, where I witnessed first-hand the devastation caused by a toxic cocktail of chemicals released into local water bodies and the atmosphere by the Mumbai-based UPL warehouse. The warehouse was attacked during the riots last week and has been burning and releasing toxic waste since then. I was accompanied on my visit by hard-working local DA councilors Rory Macpherson and Nicole Bollman who were able to provide additional context to the situation.

The warehouse has for the past week been releasing a bright-blue mix of chemicals into the rivers that flow down into the Umhlanga Lagoon and from there into the ocean. I witnessed the bright blue liquid flowing into the river first hand today whilst teams of contractors scrambled around in the sludge to try and contain some of it. We saw bags of dead fish being carried away by trucks in two separate parts of the beach and I was advised by environmental groups that the lagoon is effectively "dead". This lagoon has formed an essential part of the important local ecosystem for thousands of years, including the surrounding forest biosphere. The long term impact on other animals within the forests is a serious cause for concern.

Along with the devastation caused by the release of the poisonous chemicals into the river systems, there is ongoing concern about the airborne toxic chemicals being released into the atmosphere by the raging fire. Local residents have been breathing in these rancid fumes since the fire started but there appears to be no sense of urgency from the municipality to actually put the fires out. The fires at the plant were still burning today, in spite of a press release from the Department saying that they would be extinguished by today. A brief visit to the Umhlanga Fire Station at around 11am found two large fire vehicles and a number of other response vehicles sitting idle. Surely the urgency of the situation should see more of these vehicles involved in putting the fires out? An air quality reading from IQ Air at the Durban City Hall classifies the air quality in the area as "unhealthy" and recommends the wearing of masks and refraining from outdoor exercise.

A central question remains how the warehouse itself was allowed to operate in the first place and store such highly dangerous substances in an area so close to an environmentally sensitive biosphere. It is essential that we establish the chain of events that led to the warehouse being given the green light to operate from this building and whether due process was followed. If an environmental impact assessment (EIA) was indeed conducted, as it should have been, then we need to know who conducted it and why there were seemingly no effective contingency measures put in place to deal with the consequences of a building fire.

I have been in communication with the Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy, today whilst visiting the sites in question and she has committed to assist in addressing the issues as best possible but I fear it may be a case of too little, too late. There appears to be a serious disconnect between the current steps being taken by local authorities and the actual scale of the disaster on the ground. Whilst Umhlanga beaches are technically "closed" many people seem to not be aware due to inadequate signage and continue to walk their dogs and even wade across parts of the hazardous lagoon. More must be done to communicate with local residents and advise them of the potential dangers. The ANC led administration cannot continue to pretend that this environmental disaster is under control. The consequences will be with the residents of Umhlanga for many years to come and they will never forget how absent and ineffective their government was during this time.

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