South Africa

BLAST BLOWBACK

We fight on, say ‘gatvol’ residents hit by 2020 explosion at Engen’s South Durban refinery

We fight on, say ‘gatvol’ residents hit by 2020 explosion at Engen’s South Durban refinery
Dennis Jones, who lives in a home overlooking the refinery, said his house shook during the blast to such an extent that some of the windows and glass doors had ‘blown out’. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

There were no niceties from community leaders who took to the stage at the Austerville community hall on Tuesday. Representatives punched hard while updating their ‘constituents’ on what had transpired since the 4 December 2020 blast and fire at the Engen refinery.

Residents of Wentworth in the South Durban Basin industrial area gave community activists and leaders an unequivocal mandate this week to continue “fighting” on their behalf to ensure Engen “takes responsibility” for a 4 December 2020 blast and fire at its refinery that left residents “traumatised”, some physically harmed, and hundreds of homes damaged. 

It was made clear by the residents at the morning and evening meetings that a disaster/evacuation plan for those living, working and at school near the vast and aged plant was one of several priorities they were seeking information on, as was the actual cause of the blast and how future incidents would be avoided. 

explosion

Yul Volson (right) and Eulene Volson in the lounge in their flat in Ogle Road. They say some of their windows ‘popped out’ as a result of the explosion. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

The provincial department of economic development, tourism and environmental affairs confirmed to Daily Maverick on Thursday night that Engen had submitted a report on 16 March providing a status update on all the specialist studies it commissioned as a result of the blast, while on 19 March, the company had submitted “detailed reports”.

The detailed reports include an air impact report, community health risk assessment and an update on the community communication plan. “Those plans are being interrogated by the Department. The Root Cause analysis has not been finalised,” KZN economic development spokesperson Bheki Mbanjwa told Daily Maverick

“Should gaps be identified in the reports Engen will be issued with further instructions to meet the requirements of the Directive. If Engen fails to meet those requirements, criminal enforcement will be initiated,” said Mbanjwa. 

Engen refinery

An aerial shot of the Engen refinery in Wentworth. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

The plans and reports have not been made available to the community or their representatives. 

Thirteen groups — including activists, pastors and ratepayers associations — have come together to represent the “gatvol” blue-collar community as it fights big industries including Engen that, according to residents, treat them as “second-class citizens” and have scant regard for their health or wellbeing. 

There were no niceties from community leaders who took to the stage at the Austerville community hall on Tuesday. Representatives punched hard while updating their “constituents” on what had transpired since the explosion. 

One of those to take to the stage was internationally renowned activist Desmond D’Sa, of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance. 

refinery

An image taken through the broken net of a soccer goalpost shows children enjoying a game of soccer in a field close to the refinery. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

D’Sa is known for verbally eviscerating industries that treat residents as the aforementioned second-class citizens. 

He told the capacity crowd — all adhering to physical distancing measures and masked-up — that when he and fellow representative Rico Euripidou of environmental group groundWork visited the plant as part of a parliamentary oversight inspection in February, they were “shocked” at what they saw.

“[W]e are sitting on a ticking time bomb that could kill many of us,” D’sa told the audience. 

“This refinery has kept the truth from us, and we must say: ‘No longer will we accept that,’ ” D’sa bellowed into the microphone. 

“The national portfolio committee [on Environment, Forestry and Fisheries] has taken over the task [of trying to get to the bottom of the blast], but while we are talking, Engen is doing their crap behind closed doors. So the enemy is still out there, still developing, still pushing, and they are doing things behind the backs of the community. 

“We (the community representatives) have done a lot in a short space of time, but still a lot needs to be done to get where we are equal, to get where we have the same opportunities, where we have the same rights to live in an environment, in a community that is free of toxic pollution, but also we need to be healthy,” emphasised D’Sa, to applause from the audience. 

refinery

Ramona Manique in her Ogle Road flat opposite the refinery. She says the increase of fires at the refinery makes her feel unsafe. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

The list of demands drawn up by the activists and delivered to Engen after the blast includes the need for regular updates from senior management — “not juniors” as the representatives told the meeting. Demands include compensation for residents whose properties were damaged and compensation for “psychological trauma”. 

As previously reported by Daily Maverick, a preliminary report into the incident described events as such: 

“On the morning of Friday 4th December 2020 at 7h07:53, a vapour cloud was observed behind the CHD (Catalytic HydroDesulfurisation) reactor. Preliminary investigation shows that there was a loss of Nitrogen from its primary containment, followed by an explosion and a fire at 7h08:20. The cause of loss of primary containment of the Nitrogen tank leading to the explosion and fire is still under investigation.”

There has been much confusion and anger since the blast as to what Engen is responsible for, what it is actually doing, and what falls upon the government to enforce. Residents and Engen appear to be suspicious of each other’s motives, which has exacerbated the poor communication between the parties. 

But, a ray of light has come in the form of a mutually agreed upon independent facilitator — advocate Karthi Govender — who has done mediation work in the South Durban Basin previously, and throughout Africa. 

engen

Yoreshen Moodley (left) and Tarryn Leverton sit in their flat in Ogle Road opposite the refinery. Many residents feel that Engen is failing to provide them with opportunities. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

To understand why a mutually agreed upon facilitator can be seen as a ray of light, one has to understand that multimillion-rand industries very often bully communities into accepting their choice of facilitator — always punted as independent — when incidents such as spills, explosions and other industrial accidents take place. 

A facilitator biased towards the offending industry has enough power to shut down the community’s concerns. 

Govender’s term is set to last for four months, and his mandate centres mostly on the 187 or so claims lodged against Engen by residents after the blast. 

An inaugural meeting between Govender’s team, Engen and community representatives took place earlier this month at a bed and breakfast establishment — a neutral venue, if you will — outside Austerville. Dates for the next meeting are being finalised. 

Nevertheless, one of the bones of contention for the community is Engen’s denying that a fire at a government-owned residential block (known as Block 10) started as a result of a hot projection from the explosion. 

According to witnesses that Daily Maverick spoke to, the fire started just after the explosion was heard. It resulted in an 11-year-old child suffering burns to her hands and face, and a flat being burnt. Twenty-seven other residents of the block were affected, some having to be treated by paramedics for smoke inhalation at the scene. It has been this kind of “denial” from Engen that has led the community to brand the company and its senior managers as “liars” and “arrogant”. 

Resident Fazil Anderson walks past a block of flats on Ogle Road, close to the refinery. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Engen told Daily Maverick: “The said incident was thoroughly investigated by independent loss adjusters, Crawford & Company and an independent fire investigator from Hexagon Fire Investigations, whose report indicates that there is no evidence to suggest that the fire at the local apartment block is in any way related to the refinery fire.

“As a member of the South Durban community, Engen endeavours — whenever possible — to assist the community. In this instance, we did so by helping the families of Block 10 as part of our proactive care for the community. 

“With provincial DHS (Department of Human Settlements) working diligently to secure temporary residential units for these families, Engen stepped up to ensure that the 27 affected residents were accommodated at a local B&B in the interim at the company’s cost. 

“The families were moved to allocated accommodations by the DHS from 26-28 December 2020, once the DHS informed them that it had units ready. Engen also extended assistance to the families for the replacement of some essential home items, appliances and furniture. To date, Engen has spent R1.2m supporting the families affected by the fire at Block 10.”

While the community’s trust relationship with the company is hollowed out, it also depends on Engen for employment opportunities. The plant’s annual shutdown could see thousands of residents find temporary employment. There is continuous unhappiness over the plant sourcing labour from elsewhere, while the community says it has skilled labour. 

As one resident told Daily Maverick: “They are happy to keep on spewing their stuff into our air, but we aren’t good enough for jobs.” DM

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