Picture: Guillem Sartorio/AFP
Picture: Guillem Sartorio/AFP

Degraded marine areas in Durban could take up to two years to recover from Cornubia chemical spill

By Dominic Naidoo Time of article published Jul 28, 2021

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It has been just over two weeks since the United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) pesticide and agro-chemicals warehouse blew up in Cornubia, Durban but the effects continue to be felt.

The short-term effects of the chemical spill which caused the death of countless marine life, include ocean and river dead zones, potential damage to surrounding natural vegetation and farmland, the closure of recreational activities along affected beaches, rivers and areas close to the facilities and the inability of subsistence fishermen and women to fish and feed themselves.

Experts say in the longer term, degraded marine and aquatic areas could take up to two years or longer to recover.

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The warehouse contained close to 1600 different chemicals, many of them highly toxic.

Firefighters got to the warehouse three days later and the fire was fully extinguished on Thursday last week.

UPL said in a statement: “There were also fungicides and herbicides, most of which were probably destroyed by the extreme heat of the fire and in most cases can be expected to have burned out into the atmosphere.

It is advisable, however, for people with asthmatic conditions and very young infants to avoid the immediate surroundings of the Cornubia warehouse.”

The warehouse is situated within the Greater Cornubia mixed-use development project, a project that was designated and gazetted as a special human settlements Strategic Integrated Project by the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission. It included high-density housing, shopping centres and light industrial areas.

A frame grab from an SABC broadcast of a chemical factory in Durban that was allegedly set on fire by looters . Picture: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA)

Since then, city officials admitted that there was no “specific” environmental impact study conducted pertaining to chemical pollution and potential pollution at the facility. As a result, many parts of Durban were shrouded in thick clouds of toxic smoke when the facility was set alight.

For three days, chemicals poured into a tributary which fed into the Umdhloti river and eventually made its way into the sea turning the water a sickly turquoise and leaving hordes of the dead river and marine animals in its wake.

As of Tuesday, 27 July 2021, United Phosphorus Limited has employed the services of two chemical and hazardous clean-up companies to help contain the toxic spill. On Friday last week, Barbara Creecy, Minister of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, described the steps the department will take to remedy the situation.

“We are deeply concerned about the environmental impact on air quality as well as on the aquatic and marine ecosystems resulting from the fire incident. A team, which is made up of scientists and specialists, will support the ongoing efforts to address the pollution impacts resulting from the burning of the UPL warehouse, containing bulk quantities of herbicides, fungicides and pesticides,” said Creecy.

This is all well and good but I am sorry to say, the toxic chemical horse has bolted. People could close their windows when the wind blew the toxic plumes into homes, surfers and fishermen have to wait a few weeks or months until it's safe to return to the beaches but the thousands of aquatic and marine animals could not escape.

Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency(ANA)

Scores of fishes, crustaceans, amphibians and birds suffocated and died an agonizing death. Where is the justice for these creatures? How much were their lives worth? Have we not taken enough from this planet already?

We cannot deny that synthetic chemicals have greatly improved our lives. Fertilizers and pesticides provide food security, detergents and soaps make sure our homes and we are clean and safe from disease, there are thousands of ways we use chemicals daily, whether we like it or not. But what happens when these chemicals find their way into places they’re not meant to be like freshwater ecosystems, farmland and the ocean?

A study published in Environment International titled Chemical pollution: A growing peril and potentially catastrophic risk to humanity state that “chemical pollutants have been released since the Industrial Revolution but their release and dispersal has accelerated markedly in the last half-century and that “the scale of chemical release is estimated to be as high as 220 billion tonnes per annum – of which greenhouse emissions constitute only 20%.”

The synthetic chemicals have been detected in the upper atmosphere, on the highest mountains, in the deepest oceans, from pole to pole and in the most remote, uninhabited regions, in soil, water, air, and in the human food chain itself.

Dead fish are caught in a litter boom in an estuary after chemicals entered the water system from a warehouse which was burned during days of looting. Picture: Rogan Ward/Reuters

As of June 2021, there were more than 700 known ‘dead zones’ in oceans and lakes, and pollution by fertilisers, agrochemicals and sediments are one of the factors most strongly associated with these habitat collapses.

The study also revealed that industrial chemicals, including known cancer-causing agents and their residues, have been detected in the blood and tissues of all populations, including the unborn and infants, and in mother’s milk.

The natural environment has always borne the brunt of these negative effects with chemicals being found in aquatic organisms, plants and wild animals.

UPL stated that a bulk of the chemicals stored at the facility were fertiliser components and other bio-based materials. Science Direct explains that “nitrate and phosphate which are used to manufacture fertilizers are food for the algae in the water. An overload of these chemicals will cause the algae to bloom. As the excess algae die and decay, dissolved oxygen is used up and the overall quality of the water is degraded. Aquatic life dies from oxygen deprivation.”

The very essence of life is a function of genetics, metabolism, nutrition and the environment. Chemical toxicity can impair each of these functions; the combined and cumulative effects of all these synthetic chemicals, acting together, can eventually impair human life itself.

It is time we demand accountability and action from the people we choose to lead us. We need to demand that environmental protection agencies are performing as they should. The next chemical factory explosion could be worse, do we really want to wait to find out how much worse?

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