Residents of the Blackburn Village informal settlement at Cornubia, north of Durban, who were affected by the chemical spill from the warehouse owned by United Phosphorus South Africa Limited (UPL)  want to be relocated.

The warehouse was set alight during the July civil unrest – causing a chemical spillage into nearby streams and rivers.

Probing the unrest, the South African Human Rights Commission heard a testimony that communities, crops and the environment were affected.

UPL has dismissed some of the testimony, calling it false and misleading.

The community of Blackburn Village informal settlement says it has been struggling with health problems for 5 months now since the spillage of toxic chemicals at the UPL warehouse.

The settlement is home to close to 10 000 people, of whom 80% are unemployed. This expanding settlement, which has been in existence for 12 years, is still battling with service delivery such as electricity, sanitation and adequate running water.

It lies right next to the contaminated Ohlange River.

People say the chemical smell emanating from the river is unbearable. Community leader Kwanele Msizazwe says they want to be relocated. Msizawe says they have not received any form of medical assistance from UPL or from the government.

“The current situation now in the community of Blackburn is that we are experiencing a high number of people who are sick ever since that fire occurred. It’s the elderly people who are my biggest concern and the young generation. They are experiencing chest problems and shortness of breathing. The only feedback we have received is that UPL company is planning to implement a clinic.”

In a recent statement, the eThekwini municipality reminded people not to stray into the exclusion zone – a kilometre on either side of the Umhlanga River mouth north of Durban- due to the contamination.

Msizazwe says the spillage did not only impact their health but also on their livelihoods. Msizazwane says their crops died after the spill.

“Mostly the people who used to go fishing, they are now left jobless, they use to go there in the evening and return in the morning with about 20 litres of a bucket full of fish. The community used to buy the fish. But also I believe that the people who are now at the higher risk are the ones who have vegetable gardens. These gardens are right next to that river and at first, the crops were changing colours,” says Msizazwe.

But the eThekwini municipality says extensive efforts have been made by clean-up crews appointed by UPL to reduce and contain the contamination that caused serious environmental damage to the Umdloti, Ohlange River and Umhlanga River Estuary.

Stay away from the exclusion zone: Municipality

The municipality also admits that while there has been some degree of success, the effects of the contamination will take years to remediate.

Municipal Spokesperson Musa Mayisela says “We remind the public that while beaches in the north or Durban we remind the public that we must stay away from the exclusion zone which is the Ohlanga River mouth heading 1km north and south of the uMhlanga river mouth. We are not doing this with an intention of frustrating the public, but it is our effort to ensure that the public is safe and that we may not have incidents that we will regret in the future.”

UPL failed to follow provincial and national environment regulations: Expert

Testifying before Human Rights Commission, environmental expert  Professor Rajen Naidoo said UPL failed to follow provincial and national environmental regulations when it built its warehouse near vulnerable communities.

Naidoo told the commission that civil society groups do not trust the environmental report compiled by UPL. The report has listed the hazardous chemicals that spilled into the rivers and onto Durban beaches in July.

Naidoo highlighted that UPL hired its own agencies to furnish government with information about the spill after the fire. According to Naidoo, these agencies failed to give detailed information on what kind of chemicals had contaminated the area. He says independent environmental agencies should do such an assessment.

“Government agencies don’t have the resources to investigate every company to ensure they subscribe to the legislatures. For example, the only way for the government to respond was by turning to a consultant employed by the polluter. Therefore they depended on the polluter for the disaster that they cause.”

Submission to commission

However, UPL says the testimony by Naidoo and Msizazwe are false, misleading and inaccurate. UPL Spokesperson, Japhet Ncube says they will be making a written submission to the commission.

“UPL was explicably not invited to provide evidence and therefore was never given an opportunity to challenge some of the testimony from some of the role players. Some of this information was not inaccurate. Most importantly UPL has sort expert opinion in terms of its compliance with the relevant legislation and we will be responding in an appropriate forum. We want to express that no level of compliance would have prevented the spill that resulted from the unprecedented violence and the breakdown from the rule of law and order in the area.”

Ncube says UPL has spent about R297 million on clean-up and rehabilitation operations. He says UPL has also continued to monitor the impact of the spill on human health in surrounding communities and remains committed to working with those affected.