Communities along the Umhlanga River, which has been contaminated by a chemical spillage from United Phosphorus Limited Chemical Plant in Cornubia in Durban, have called on the company and the government to fast-track clean-up operations to avoid a loss of life.

The plant was torched last month during a wave of looting and unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

This caused a toxic discharge to flow into the uMhlanga tributary, estuary, and onto the beach. Many residents say they are sick from the persistent smell and toxins.

In the video below a chemical factory is up in flames in the Durban Industrial area

Despite efforts by United Phosphorus Limited to clean up the toxic chemical spillage after the torching of the warehouse, those who live nearby say they fear falling severely ill from the strong, pungent fumes that remain in the area.

Some residents who were part of an oversight visit by Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Environment, Forestry, and Fisheries complain of respiratory illnesses.

“I started getting sick literally the day after the chemical started burning. I developed asthma overnight. I am a cancer survivor. I’ve been in remission for five years. I have suffered immensely. I’ve been on two courses of antibiotics 16 prednisone a day.  I’ve been told I’ve got chemically-induced pneumonia and damage to my lung foam. I’ve had x-rays done and I’m on 16 prednisone a day as you can hear I am still wheezing,” says resident Lyadall Valentine.

In a July 31st statement from UPL, the company notes that many of the water-based products in the warehouse were atomised during the blaze, creating a dense plume of smoke and fumes that caused distress to many people in the neighbouring areas.

It further states that because a significant volume of water was used to extinguish the fire, and due to the delayed response of the spill response cleaning services amid the ongoing unrest, the product that was not vapourised and the water from the fire operations overwhelmed the containment system and escaped into the environment.

Francine Hattingh is from an informal air quality group, Durban North Air Quality says they are not satisfied with the slow progress. She has also appealed to the company to be more transparent.

“ We need to be transparent when there has been flagrant disregard of legislation and we know that there weren’t major hazard installations. We know that they didn’t have their environmental permits, which is absolutely in the public domain. Yet the first public hearing that I went to after this, in that hearing the minister stood up and said we are going to going work together with UPL, they do fantastic things for the farmers.

It seems to me all the focus has been on working with UPL. When there is a request coming for information for what were the actual chemical pollutants we know there were very fine particles involved, we know that my other concern was with the equipment not working, Bruce Dell of the council said that at the last press conference he mentioned that they have to do modeling because unfortunately due to the equipment which we already know the equipment was not working. They have to use equipment at the airport and do modeling on the winds far away, it’s all of great concern, we need as much transparency as we can get.”

Chairperson of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Fikile Xasa, says the committee will need more information from UPL on the type of chemicals that made their way into the water systems.

“There are investigations going on. Obviously, as the committee, we are going to demand reports that would be factual in the context of saying what was contained in here, what kind of chemicals quantities, and everything else even the investigations into what has led to this. Because if you look across there is Makro, there is this warehouse here which contained chemicals. Makro, as I loom across it, was protected we don’t know what was in there, that those people who were involved wanted to get. We still have a lot of questions than answers -but obviously, we will raise questions, we will definitely demand reports.”

Following the visit among the parliamentary committee’s resolutions are to investigate compensation for affected community members and for a report into the human impacts including the potential developments of chronic conditions as a result of the incident.