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UPL bans Daily Maverick from Durban chemical fire community meeting – again

UPL bans Daily Maverick from Durban chemical fire community meeting – again
Forum members and guests hold an informal meeting outside UPL’s office in Umhlanga Ridge, Durban, after the pesticides company cancelled a meeting at short notice to exclude a Daily Maverick journalist. There are (from left) Mcebisi Ndzimakhwe, Allimuthu Perumal, Jeremy Ridl (convener), Kamini Krishna, Alan Beesley and Kwanele Msizazwe. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

The Mumbai-based UPL pesticide and farm chemicals giant has once again banned the media from attending a public stakeholder forum meeting. This raises renewed questions about the company’s autocratic and exclusionary approach to engaging with the broader community in the aftermath of one of South Africa’s most significant environmental pollution cases.

UPL did not physically eject this reporter from the meeting. They simply cancelled the show when they got wind that Daily Maverick was planning to attend and report on a meeting of the Cornubia Multi-Stakeholders Forum – an independent body appointed by the provincial government to represent and provide feedback to communities affected by the July 2021 arson attack on UPL’s Durban chemical storage warehouse.

Several thousand tonnes of pesticides, herbicides and other farm chemicals spilt uncontrolled into local rivers, soil and the sea after the fire, while thousands of Durban residents breathed in toxic fumes that spewed into the air for 11 days from the gutted warehouse.

In Durban, at least 3.5 tonnes of dead fish washed up in river estuaries or along the beachfront after toxic chemicals spilled from UPL’s warehouse in Cornubia in 2021. (Photo: Supplied)

The forum meeting (due to be held at UPL’s Umhlanga Ridge offices in Durban at 9.30am on 10 August) was abruptly called off less than half an hour before the scheduled start.

In an email message sent to forum members just after 9am, UPL environmental consultant Vicki King apologised for the short notice in cancelling the meeting.

“Unfortunately Tony Carnie was insisting on attending and this is not a press forum. We will reschedule the meeting at a date to be arranged.”

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A screenshot of an email message from UPL consultant Vicki King, cancelling the meeting. (Photo: Supplied)

What she failed to mention, however, was that this reporter had been invited to the meeting by the community forum that was set up by the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government at the request of the National Assembly’s Portfolio Committee on Environmental Affairs.

Cognisant that the meeting was being held on UPL business premises rather than neutral turf – and that the company had barred him from a similar meeting held on 23 July last year – Carnie also sent an email message to senior executive Jan Botha three weeks ago, requesting clarity about media attendance at a meeting at its offices. 

The forum was established nearly two years ago by Ravi Pillay, former KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Environmental Affairs. He stressed that the forum was to be “managed independently of UPL”; to create an environment for interested and affected parties to “engage meaningfully” with one another, UPL South Africa and government authorities – and to “act as a conduit for the dissemination of information to communities affected by the incident”.

upl ban pillay

The broad aims of the multistakeholder forum were set out in this invitation by former KwaZulu-Natal Environment MEC Ravi Pillay. (Image: Supplied)

But UPL executives clearly do not see it that way.

Dr Jeremy Ridl, a senior environmental attorney and convener of the independent forum, confirmed that he was contacted by UPL lawyer Norman Brauteseth just before the meeting, raising concern that this reporter was on the guest list.

Brauteseth had informed him that if forum members insisted on Carnie attending the meeting, then UPL would simply cancel the meeting.

Last year, Brauteseth advanced a series of legalistic objections to justify the exclusion of Daily Maverick from the previous meeting, arguing that the publication was not a formal member of the forum, while company spokesman Japhet Ncube said that UPL “never intended that the broader community or any media would be invited” to the July 2022 meeting.

“There is a significant difference between being banned from a community/open event or meeting and not being invited to a closed, non-public meeting. It is disingenuous to have claimed the former and the title of the article is wholly misleading,” the company said at the time.

Brauteseth also told the forum representatives that “we can talk about reportage on the meeting once it has been held. What we do about further meetings, and whether there should be a more open public meeting in due course, is the next step in our interactions”.

However, several forum members who arrived at the UPL offices were irate about the sudden cancellation of the meeting and the exclusion of the media.

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UPL reception staff field queries from irate community forum members about the abrupt cancellation of a meeting about the July 2021 arson attack and chemical spillage in Cornubia. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

“One wonders what UPL is trying to hide?” commented Kwanele Msizazwe, a representative of Blackburn Village, an informal settlement close to the UPL warehouse that bore much of the brunt of the air and waterborne chemical emissions after the fire.

Kamini Krishna, a forum member representing the UPL Civil Society Action Group, noted that several members had taken time off to attend the meeting – only to be turned away at the UPL reception.

She noted that as representatives of the community, forum members wanted to be informed in detail about the long-term consequences for human health and the environment in the aftermath of the pollution – including potential chemical contamination of groundwater in the vicinity of Cornubia.

In his role as forum convener, Ridl said UPL had explained to him that the company was not willing to share certain information in a public forum.

However, Ridl said his personal view was that it was essential for the forum to keep the public informed “and the best way to do this is through competent and credible journalists since the MSF does not have in-house media or communications expertise”.

“If UPL is allowed to dictate to the forum who may attend their meetings, this will certainly create the impression that the forum is ‘captured’,” he said, adding that forum members would now have to consider how to proceed.

Forum member Rico Euripidou, a researcher and epidemiologist with the groundWork environmental justice group, expressed shock at UPL’s sudden decision to cancel the meeting to exclude media.

“Without multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral cooperation, including the media, we can never expect to achieve the sound management of chemicals and waste. All stakeholders have a role to play. A major step is to remove barriers to information.

“In fact, according to the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management’s Article 22 of the Dubai Declaration… we are guided to openness and transparency… in making information available, information on chemicals.” DM

Footnote: Late yesterday, UPL attorney Norman Brauteseth set out the company’s position on the events in a letter addressed to Dr Ridl and a senior provincial government official chairing an intergovernmental task team on the UPL pollution case.

Brauteseth copied Daily Maverick on this letter in response to our request for UPL comment.

He states that:

“I was advised that the (forum) members would not withdraw the invitation, that Mr Carnie would be coming to the meeting, and that the issue could be dealt with at the UPL premises. On my client’s instructions, and in order to avoid unnecessary confrontation, I was then requested to cancel the meeting, which was done.”

He further states that, in UPL’s view: “The MSF was envisaged inter alia to provide guidance to UPL in its navigating of engagements with authorities and other stakeholders, particularly when issues arise in which the MSF can assist. The presence of the press at any of those discussions is self-evidently inappropriate.”

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out what’s going on. Pity the company’s consultants and lawyers seem to be cut from the same cloth. Or maybe that’s how they got the gig.

  • Bruce Danckwerts says:

    I think the trouble with this case, is that it is being approached from the perspective of laying the blame. This is a mistake. There is a case of an airline pilot whose wife went into hospital for surgery on her sinuses. However, his wife died during the operation and, when the pilot asked the surgeon when they would be holding the inquiry, he was surprised to be told that the medical profession never holds an inquiry. The pilot knew that, in the airline industry, even if an “incident” was only a close shave, there would be an inquiry so that EVERYBODY could learn from it, and so prevent it from happening again. Out of his own pocket he hired a conference center (I believe in Birmingham) and invited the top people from the airline industry to teach the top people from the medical profession about having inquiries as a means of learning from past mistakes, rather than for laying the blame. I believe it would be unfair to blame the lawyers for the confrontational nature of the aftermath to this incident. However, I believe it is not too late to step back and (as the Americans like to say) Breathe. The government should then reconvene a meeting with the sole purpose of learning what went wrong and what recommendations (even laws) need to be put in place to prevent this sort of thing from happening again in the future. It MIGHT be that the inquiry finds that UPL DID break an EXISTING law, in which case there would be a case to call in the lawyers. Bruce Danckwerts CHOMA Zambia

    • steve woodhall says:

      The problem with that argument is that South Africa has laws governing the management of hazardous chemical substances (NEMA and OSHA). And eThekwini has by-laws as well – the requirement for a Scheduled Trade Permit (now called a Scheduled Activity Permit). Under OSHA, above a certain threshold quantity, a Major Hazard Installation (MHI) Risk Assessment has to be carried out. And storage of hazardous chemicals is a Scheduled Trade (a term concerning risky or unpleasant trades such as abattoirs and chemicals facilities. None of this was done. Also, if a building is to be used to store the kind of chemicals UPL had in that warehouse (many WHO category 1, 1a and 1b health hazards) a special EIA must be carried out. The landlord had done an EIA but it was for light industrial and commercial use, not storage of hazardous materials. UPL sneaked this stuff into SA after they got kicked out of Norway and India for bad behaviour. They must have known they were breaking the law but they went ahead anyway, probably thinking there was little chance they would get caught. But they were, thanks to Zuma’s rioters. The whole saga afterwards has been one long Stalingrad strategy. But I’ve seen the human health risk assessment documentation that was supposed to have been presented at this meeting. It’s horrendous. Clearly UPL was frightened silly of being exposed to targeted questioning by an environmental journalist. Their perfidy WILL be exposed soon.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Like taxis should be impounded when not roadworthy, companies should be stopped from operating until they have restored their fitness and competence to operate.

  • watered down says:

    How is it that a foreign company who has not followed the governance required to protect multiple communities from harm as a result of the fire on their property is allowed to still be registered and is still operating on South African soil?????

    The damage done to humans and animals is significant and will stay in the soil and water for years to come. UPL may get away with this in India, but we need to take them to court and let justice proceed and if so required, remove their license to operate, pay for reperations and pay fines where required.

    Somehow, it would seem that this is a cover-up being allowed by the people who should be protecting the communities and the environment.

    We certainly need answers. If the press is excluded, then we need the courts to get the answers.

    • William Kelly says:

      Agreed. Would go one further. UPL has customers. Why are they supporting them still? I understand the logistics of changing and the costs, but in this case I would be looking for alternates almost despite what it costs. You are tainted with your associations.

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