South Africa: more needs to be done to tackle toxic chemical emergency in Umhlanga

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

Over the past week, the warehouse released a mixture of bright blue chemicals into rivers that flow into Umhlanga Lagoon and from there into the ocean. I saw the bright blue liquid flow into the river today as teams of contractors scrambled through the mud to try and contain some of it. We saw bags of dead fish being carried by trucks to two separate parts of the beach and environmental groups informed me that the lagoon was indeed “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 in the forests is a serious cause for concern.

Along with the devastation caused by the release of toxic chemicals into river systems, there is ongoing concern about the toxic airborne chemicals being released into the atmosphere by the raging fire. Local residents have been breathing these rancid fumes since the start of the blaze, but there does not appear to be a sense of urgency on the part of the municipality to put out the fires. The fires at the plant were still burning today, despite a press release from the ministry saying they would be extinguished by today. A brief visit to the Umhlanga fire station around 11 a.m. uncovered two large fire vehicles and a number of other inactive response vehicles. Should the urgency of the situation certainly see more of these vehicles involved in extinguishing the fires? An IQ Air air quality reading at Durban City Hall ranks the air quality in the region as “unhealthy” and recommends wearing masks and refraining from swimming. ‘outdoor exercise.

A central question remains how the warehouse itself was allowed to function in the first place and store such highly hazardous substances in an area so close to an ecologically sensitive biosphere. It is essential that we establish the chain of events that led to the warehouse green light to operate from this building and whether the official procedure was followed. If an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has indeed been carried out, as it should have been, then we need to know who carried it out and why no effective emergency measures were apparently put in place. place to deal with the consequences of a building fire.

I have been in communication with the Minister of Environment, Forests and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy, today when visiting the sites in question and she is committed to helping resolve the issues as best as possible, but I fear it is too little, too late. There appears to be a serious disconnect between the measures currently taken by local authorities and the actual scale of the disaster on the ground. While Umhlanga’s beaches are technically “closed”, many people seem unaware due to inadequate signage and continue to walk their dogs and even wade through some dangerous parts of the lagoon. More needs to be done to communicate with local residents and educate them about potential dangers. The ANC-led administration cannot continue to pretend that this environmental catastrophe is under control. The consequences will be for the people 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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About Lucille Thompson

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