Durban chemical company torched in unrest faces criminal probe after toxic spill

02 September 2021 - 15:33
A hazardous waste cleanup crew collects dead fish after chemicals entered the water from a warehouse burnt during days of looting in KwaZulu-Natal. File photo.
A hazardous waste cleanup crew collects dead fish after chemicals entered the water from a warehouse burnt during days of looting in KwaZulu-Natal. File photo.
Image: Rogan Ward/Reuters

Durban chemical facility United Phosphorous Ltd (UPL), where a massive fire broke out during the unrest in July, is facing a criminal investigation.

KwaZulu-Natal MEC for economic development, tourism and environmental affairs Ravi Pillay told a conservation and environmental affairs portfolio committee meeting on Thursday that a criminal case had been opened against the company.

“A criminal charge has been laid. There will be administrative action in terms of the [National Environmental Management] act that will continue and we are not ruling out even civil litigation,” said Pillay.

It is an environmental disaster. We can’t reverse it.
MEC Ravi Pillay

“It is an environmental disaster. We can’t reverse it. We can try to mitigate the impact of it and shorten the long-term recovery period.”

The fire at the warehouse sent clouds of noxious smoke over nearby communities and caused a chemical spill that poisoned a river and wetland.

UPL, whose headquarters is in India, has refused to disclose what substances were stored at the facility, prompting a group of 11 concerned stakeholders to file an application under the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA).

Police spokesperson Capt Nqobile Gwala said a “complainant alleged that on August 15 he was at his place of work at a game reserve in Umhlanga when he smelt something burning outside.

“He went outside to investigate and noticed that the fish were dead and water was greenish at Lagoon River and Umhlanga River, which was coming up from the Cornubia area. He alleged that a warehouse in Cornubia was burning chemicals.

“A case in terms of the National Environmental Management Act was opened at Verulam police station for investigation.”  

Heinz de Boer, DA spokesperson on economic development, tourism and environmental affairs in KZN said: “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 ... The charges come after UPL has continued to provide unsatisfactory reports and remedial actions according to provincial environmental affairs official.”

UPL, whose products include agricultural fertiliser, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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