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Durban beaches safe to reopen after R177m cleanup, says firm, but city says no

23 September 2021 - 17:27
A hazardous waste cleanup crew collects dead fish after chemicals entered the water from a warehouse burnt during days of looting in KwaZulu-Natal in July. 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 in July. File photo.
Image: Rogan Ward/Reuters

Beaches north of Durban are not yet safe to reopen. 

This is the word from the eThekwini municipality despite a report from chemical giant United Phosphorus Ltd (UPL) after a serious spill when the company's Cornubia warehouse, north of Durban, was set alight during unrest in July.

Beaches north of the city have remained closed since the spill which contaminated the Ohlanga River and uMhlanga estuary, which is a tributary to the sea.

In a statement on Thursday, UPL SA's commercial director Jan Botha said a report by independent specialists had been provided to the eThekwini municipality. Results of a chemical analysis of the beaches and seawater, he said, recommended that all beaches are safe to be reopened.

“Samples, including control samples, were taken at various sites along the coastline (from Salt Rock in the north to Umgeni estuary in the south) with the results undergoing expert scrutiny and interpretation by a range of independent specialists,” he said. “They have concluded that the beaches and ocean outside a 1km exclusion zone, north, south and east of the mouth pose an extremely low chemical risk to the public, regardless of whether the estuary mouth is open or closed.”

However the municipality said on Thursday that all beaches north of the Umgeni River up to Salt Rock remain closed pending the submission of a finalised, signed report from UPL. 

Municipality spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela said: “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 September 8.

“The submissions received before 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.”

Mayisela said a consolidated report is expected early next week after which an independent peer review process will take place.

“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. 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.”

In response, UPL told TimesLIVE that the submission of the final report was expected on Thursday evening.

“The draft report has already been submitted, and after says from the authorities, amendments have been effected to the final report. The report cannot be released to the public at this stage, because it is a report prepared for the city, and is still under consideration.

“However, it recommends that except for recreational and harvesting exclusion zones in the vicinity of the estuary mouth, the beaches can return to normal. That is UPL’s position, as it has been for some weeks, but only the city can make that decision.”

Botha said an extensive 10-week cleanup operation had cost the company just over R177m.

“This has seen teams of hazardous waste management companies and environmental professionals working around the clock to remove contaminated water and sediments from the streams to the confluence with the Ohlanga River and treat the remaining water to make it safe. It has also included containment and cleanup measures at the warehouse site.”

To date, thousands of litres of liquid waste have been removed from the area, as well as solid waste from various points along the stream and from the burnt warehouse site.

Botha emphasised that marine life would continue to be affected by other events, natural and human-influenced.

“We are willing to work with any group who is concerned about whether the arson and subsequent spill are involved in marine kill. A recent report (September 11) by the Marine & Estuarine Research (MER) consultancy found that the cause of the large amount of dead fish along the uMdloti beaches was the result of a natural occurrence,” he said.

“The report concluded that the mouth of the uMdloti estuary had breached overnight due to a strong current and weather conditions, washing the fish (living in fresh water) out into seawater. The dead fish then washed up along the coast towards the uMhlanga estuary.”

Mayisela said central Durban beaches were also closed for bathing and any other sporting activity, with immediate effect. This comes after constant vandalism of the city's sewer pump station. 

“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 water at some beaches and results showed a positive presence of these bacteria. Teams are hard at work on a malfunctioning sewer pump station that is constantly vandalised for scrap metal and work is at an advanced stage to remedy the situation.”

Beaches that are safe for the public to use include:

  • Pipeline beach
  • Amanzimtoti main beach
  • Warner beach
  • Winklespruit beach
  • Reunion beach
  • Umgababa beach. 



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