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Durban chemical disaster ‘tip of regulatory failure iceberg’

Home Engineering Chemical Durban chemical disaster ‘tip of regulatory failure iceberg’

THE fire at the United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) chemical plant and subsequent environmental disaster is just the tip of regulatory failure iceberg and similar incidents are inevitable unless government acts decisively.

That’s the warning from Burt Rodrigues, the CEO of eco-friendly detergent manufacturer Biodx, following the recent announcement by Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Environmental Affairs Barbara Creecy that the UPL facility at Cornubia in north Durban did not have the required environmental authorisation.

Creecy said this while releasing the finding of a joint preliminary investigation after the company’s warehouse was set on fire during the unrest in July. The fire led to a chemical spill into the Ohlanga stream and the ocean that, in turn, prompted an extended closure of beaches north of the uMngeni River.

Rodrigues said the incident not only put firefighters lives at risk as they didn’t not know what they were walking in to, but it has also caused long-lasting environmental damage to the land, beaches, rivers, estuary and ocean.

“The real question here is how did UPL get permission to build such a chemical hazard in this area and then somehow avoid the regulatory process that includes the environmental and risk studies by the National Environmental Management Act (Nema) and the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA)?”

Rodrigues said that under Nema, if an entity stores more than 80m3 of “dangerous goods” it’s a listed activity and requires a basic assessment report, while more than 500m3 requires a full environmental impact assessment (EIA).

“According to reports the warehouse stored more than 6 000m3 of ‘crop solution products’, with more than 500m3 containing chemicals considered so dangerous they’re banned elsewhere in the world.”

He said it was not the only such unregulated facility in South Africa. “It’s only come to people’s attention now because of the results of the fire. The failure of the regulatory bodies to prevent this has now led to KZN not only facing environmental problems but also the loss of one of the biggest suppliers of agro products.

“In a stringent regulatory environment this wouldn’t happen. Society needs to understand why such regulations exist. The lack of will by the regulatory bodies and the lack of will by the manufacturer to comply without anyone demanding a change will see this situation just carrying on,” Rodrigues warned.

Creecy said the compliance profile report contained a factual assessment of the seven different government authorities relating to all the licenses, permits and authorisations that UPL was required to have, in order to lawfully conduct its operations at Cornubia, compared with those that UPL held at the time of the fire.

“The environmental authorisation should have been obtained from the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs. In addition, UPL had not obtained a critical risk assessment or planning permissions from the eThekwini Municipality, in terms of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), and the relevant municipal by-laws.”

Had UPL undertaken this process, it would probably have been defined as a major hazard institution, considering the significant volumes and nature of the chemicals stored at this particular location, Creecy said, adding that these assessments would have determined the emergency readiness of the facility in the face of a disaster, such as a fire.

UPL said in a statement that it was “deeply disappointed” that the minister had decided to release her department’s preliminary findings of an investigation “without any prior discussion with the company”.

“UPL will, in due course, respond to allegations of non-compliance in the appropriate forums. For now, it intends to get on with the clean-up and rehabilitation. It has had extensive interactions with the authorities in the past, and trust that the Minister’s current visit and actions have not prejudiced that,” the company said.

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