Our Burning Planet


UPL disaster: Questions emerge over ‘missing’ toxic chemical results and accuracy of air pollution maps

UPL disaster: Questions emerge over ‘missing’ toxic chemical results and accuracy of air pollution maps
The UPL chemical warehouse smoulders on July 18 2021. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

New peepholes have been drilled through the closed-door government investigation into the UPL chemical warehouse fire, finally permitting Durban residents to access more information — and to raise questions — about one of South Africa’s worst chemical disasters.

More than three months after toxic fumes billowed over large areas of Durban, a new online information portal on the UPL chemical inferno has been opened to the public, largely due to the intervention of Forestry, Fisheries and Environmental Affairs Minister Barbara Creecy, some senior officials and frustrated civil society groups.

The new information portal enables members of the public and researchers to plough through a voluminous archive of official reports, preliminary studies and government directives compiled over the past 96 days and presented to the Cornubia fire Joint Operations Committee (JOC) made up of officials from national, provincial and local government.

upl pesticide fallout

A preliminary map of pesticide fallout from the UPL pesticide and farm poison warehouse in Durban. (Image: Supplied)

The portal will provide some much-needed (albeit limited) information flows and enable further public scrutiny of the potentially significant threats to human health and the widespread poisoning of the land, rivers and seashore in the vicinity of the Indian-owned pesticide and farm poisons storehouse at 30 Umganu Road, Cornubia.

One of the more curious items of information presented to the JOC is a “preliminary” mapping of wind speeds and wind directions which indicates that most of the toxic fumes were blown almost directly northwards or out to sea — thereby leading to very limited pesticide fallout over homes in several residential areas such as Umhlanga, Mt Edgecombe, Cornubia or Umdloti.

But how does this mapping reconcile with the personal experience of thousands of Durban residents who smelled the toxic fumes in their homes for several days as strong winds shifted the fumes around in several directions?

During the roughly 12 days following the arson attack at UPL on 12 July, residents in several areas (many of them several kilometres south, east and west of the warehouse) complained about the strong chemical smell that forced many to shut their windows.

In other cases, residents were reported to have moved out of their homes temporarily to shelter in their cars or to stay with friends and relatives elsewhere due to concerns about their health. 

Several civil society activists, including groundWork epidemiologist Rico Euripidou, have also highlighted shortfalls in the official reporting mechanisms available to the public to log and geographically map air pollution dispersal in the aftermath of the UPL fire.

upl hazardous waste

Hazardous waste clean-up workers remove toxic spillage from the gutted chemical warehouse. (Photo: JOC website)

According to a weekly update report presented to the JOC at the end of August, UPL air quality consultants had obtained meteorological data to verify wind speeds in the Mount Edgecombe area to simulate the dispersion of pesticides around the factory. This had been used to map the predicted pesticide fallout using computer modelling systems known as CalPuff and SciPuff.

The report, submitted by Metamorphosis Environmental Consultants coordinator Vicki King, contains two pesticide fallout simulations that indicate that most of the toxic pollution drifted northwards.

Her report emphasises that the maps are “very preliminary” and “merely an indication of what the final modelling result may show”.

Nevertheless, the maps raise major question marks around the adequacy of the information available to the modelling teams, given the very limited number of Ethekwini municipality air pollution monitoring stations (the vast majority of which are located in the heavily polluted South Durban industrial area).

In an undated report compiled soon after 17 July, King says she had asked two air quality experts whether it would be possible to collect air quality samples while the fire was burning. She said these consultants told her: “It is not possible to measure pollutants emitted by a fire, due to logistics of a moving plume and a plume being pushed up into the atmosphere as a result of the heat, changing wind directions etc. They also stated that, with so many other fires and disturbances occurring it would be impossible to identify impacts from one source.”

But these assertions appear to be contradicted in several respects by another report by a separate consultancy group which suggests that several air monitoring samples were collected from 17 July onwards (while the UPL fire was still burning and the winds were shifting regularly).

upl contaminated water

A torrent of chemically contaminated water spills from stormwater drains in the vicinity of the UPL warehouse. (Photo: Supplied)

According to this 130-page report, the Skyside consultancy group was commissioned on 15 July by the Retailability group (Edgars), by Cornubia Mall on 16 July and Makro/Investec Properties on 20 July and then UPL/Fortress Properties (also 20 July) to collect poisonous air samples due to concerns around human health impacts.

By 17 July, air pollution data monitoring began from the car park of the adjacent Makro shopping mall and a further eight sampling devices were installed on 20 July.

It is not known whether Skyside has provided separate reports to Retailability and other clients, but the report prepared for UPL notes that several monitoring devices were installed to test for a wide variety of pesticides and other harmful pollutants close to the warehouse.

Significantly, it records that two special sampling devices (known as XAD tubes) were placed at two points directly on the UPL fence line to test for the presence of dioxins — some of the most dangerous pesticide and chemical combustion compounds linked in international medical studies to significant human health damage.

Surprisingly, however, the official reports presented to the JOC do not appear to record whether any dioxins were detected from the special monitors that were placed on the UPL fence line while the fire was still burning.

According to the World Health Organization, chemical analysis for dioxins requires sophisticated methods that are available only in a limited number of laboratories around the world. 

The analysis costs are very high and vary according to the type of sample, but range from more than $1,000 for the analysis of a single biological sample to several thousand dollars for the comprehensive assessment of dioxin releases from waste incinerators.

Perhaps the UPL dioxin sample results are recorded somewhere in the voluminous list of laboratory test results published so far on the new Cornubia Environmental Info website — but Our Burning Planet has not been able to track them down.

In a separate report to the JOC on 1 September, King reports that a chemical emissions inventory had been finalised and estimated that the UPL warehouse contained 2,339,055 kg of pesticides, 3,003,401 kg of combustibles and 35,378 kg of flammables (giving a combined total of at least five thousand tonnes of potentially toxic pollutants).

This report also notes the potential for dioxins to have been formed during the UPL fire.

In a subsequent report (29 September) King reports that samples of pesticides and dioxins had been collected from at least six points (from Ottawa, a site near UPL, a bowling field near Umhlanga, a site near Cornubia mall, from Portland Drive near the Umhlanga beachfront and from the golf driving range in the Mount Edgecombe residential estate).

The report does not specify how many of these tests were for dioxins specifically, but suggests that they were sent to the specialist SGS laboratory in Belgium and that results were due back on 8 October.

Again, there is no apparent record of these further dioxin test results on the new public information website — nor any indication whether any dioxin test results have been provided to the JOC.

In response to questions from Our Burning Planet at a media briefing on 3 October, Environment Minister Creecy provided an assurance that dioxin samples were being collected — though she did not provide any of the test results at the briefing.

Creecy has also called for more transparency about the information presented to the JOC. 

Speaking in the National Assembly on 25 August, she said: “I would like to reiterate the importance of transparency in the manner in which we respond to an incident of this nature. I therefore support the recommendation made by the Portfolio Committee to establish a Multi-Stakeholder Forum that will receive regular reports from the JOC and ensure representation of relevant stakeholders, including community representatives, researchers in the health fraternity and NGOs. 

“In my view, this will go a long way to restore public confidence in the investigative and remedial measures under way, and it is a requirement in terms of the National Environmental Management Act.”

UPL, however, has so far evaded direct written questions on the dioxin issue.

Nevertheless, it seems that a further window of information could open soon after a shortlist of names of public representatives was compiled to establish the proposed Multi-Stakeholder Forum.

The draft terms of reference for this forum state that: “The public has a right to be informed of matters that affect the environment, their health or wellbeing… Relevant authorities have an obligation to disclose information that is in the public interest as far as such information affects the environment.

“This right is derived from the Constitution and various relevant statutes… The public has a right to ensure organs of state are held accountable for the discharge of their statutory obligations; the relevant authorities must ensure that the information imparted to the public is accurate; must serve the public interest by its disclosure; does not compromise any criminal investigation or ensuing criminal charges; does not interfere with any compliance processes instituted by the relevant authorities; and where confidential, is disseminated lawfully.”

The new information portal also includes a full copy of preliminary findings of the JOC, which suggests that UPL was operating unlawfully, having failed to obtain several mandatory approvals from government regulators which might have resulted in prior safeguards being put into place to avoid or ameliorate the extensive pollution of air, soil, water and swimming beaches.

It also includes a copy of a preliminary government directive served on UPL on 29 September which requires the company to undertake a full human health risk assessment and to put in place a health monitoring programme.

upl sampling

A list of some of the chemical sampling sites in Durban. (Table: Supplied)

According to the introductory comments on the new information portal, “the possibility exists that the incident may lead to adverse health impacts on communities surrounding the area and adjacent to the coastal waters, and these factors are crucial to every action that is being implemented by the various organs of state, as well as UPL and the experts appointed by it”.

“The Cornubia Environmental Information page has been developed primarily to ensure the free flow and access to information to enhance the transparency of actions in this matter… to provide an opportunity for the various stakeholders making up the team to provide reports to the public domain with a joint objective of instant dispersal of information and openness to all interested and affected parties.” DM/OBP

Absa OBP

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