Roughly eight weeks after clouds of burning pesticides and farm poisons settled over thousands of homes in Durban, residents are meeting this weekend to discuss strategies to hold an Indian agrochemicals company accountable for the pollution.
The venue is an open sports field at Reddam House Umhlanga, a Grade R to Grade 12 private college with a grandstand view of the gutted remains of the United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) warehouse, barely 400m from the nearest classrooms.
During that week of madness, looting and arson in mid-July, there were no children in class, but most learners live very close by in the neighbouring upmarket suburbs of Umhlanga, La Lucia, Prestondale and Durban North.
One kilometre to the north of the UPL warehouse, several hundred other children, from the Blackburn shack settlement, were sheltering in their homes or playing outdoors — also breathing in a poisonous cocktail of insecticides, pesticides and other farm chemicals that were roasting nearby.
The public meeting from 11am to 12.30pm on Saturday, 4 September, is being hosted by the UPL Cornubia Fire Civil Society Action Group, a new civil society umbrella body that includes residents, academics, health researchers and environmental activists.
“The meeting is intended to allow all stakeholders equal opportunity to voice concerns and discuss how best to map a way forward in terms of the environmental health hazards faced by us all, including how we ensure this does not happen again,” the action group said in a statement advertising the public meeting (which will be restricted to a maximum of 100 people because of Covid restrictions).
While public concerns are likely to vary widely, top of the agenda for many residents is likely to be the nearly two-month-long information vacuum from the team of government bureaucrats that has yet to share a single laboratory test result with the people who inhaled an intermittent cocktail of poisonous fumes over the 11 days it took to extinguish the fire completely.
Disturbingly, information trickling out of the closed-door government Joint Operations Committee (JOC) suggests that some UPL consultants have produced air-modelling results which found most of the fumes drifted northwards towards King Shaka International Airport and that toxic impacts on dense human population settlements were therefore likely to be limited.
But that’s not what thousands of Durbanites experienced, as shifting winds dispersed the fumes in almost every direction.
One north Durban resident, who did not wish to be identified for professional reasons, told Our Burning Planet how she and her family had left their home, sometimes at 2am, “just to get away from the fumes for a few hours”.
“There was one night when we were so worried about the health risk of breathing those fumes that we left home and slept in our car until the fumes eased up,” she said.
“I believe we have a right to know and to ensure that there is a just and balanced investigation to protect our rights; to make input into the JOC and to scrutinise and peer-review the studies being done on behalf of UPL.”
While UPL has been directed to conduct a variety of studies, Durban epidemiologist Rico Euripidou says: “We have been excluded from the investigation. There is zero oversight by the affected communities or independent experts who are not part of government or employed by UPL.
“Civil society has to be able to ask the difficult questions on whether the affected area requires a lengthy period of remediation and whether there is a fund to pay for that. Quite frankly, from what we see, the public health response has been inadequate and there is no evidence of a proper health surveillance system.”
Euripidou said that following a major fire and explosion at the Engen fuel refinery this year, consultants had suggested that the chemical pollution cloud rose miraculously directly above the refinery and neighbouring homes, before being “conveniently” blown out to sea.
“And yet there were nearly 400 recorded complaints from people in South Durban [about the Engen fumes]. Not for one moment do I discredit the expertise of the modellers, but the fact remains that people had chemical smoke in their homes and there was also video evidence [of this].
“In the case of the Cornubia fire, if civil society is excluded from the investigation and information flows then the authorities are not dealing with people’s anxiety and fears — including beach-users and families anxious about the future health of their children.”
Though beaches between the Umgeni and Umdloti rivers remain closed due to the water-borne poisons that flowed into the sea from the UPL warehouse and killed at least 3.5 tonnes of fish, the local tourism industry is pressing for more information on current water-safety laboratory samples.
This week the Democratic Alliance wrote to Sabelo Ngcobo, the JOC chair, repeating its request for further information about the chemical inferno.
The party said the local hotel and hospitality industry was reporting high levels of booking cancellations because of concerns about the safety of beaches.
Provincial chairperson Rory Macpherson has further demanded full details of air, seawater, beach and river contamination levels in the form of original and unredacted laboratory test results.
Other groups have also voiced concern on whether local fishing communities have been warned adequately about the risk of eating contaminated fish, including filter-feeders such as mussels and oysters.
UPL, however, has maintained almost complete “radio silence” since its last media release to the public on 31 July — apart from a notice published on 26 August, when it spelt out details of a new complaints handling procedure for members of the public with concerns about health, environmental issues or property damage. DM/OBP