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New report sheds light on toxins released in fiery UPL chemical spill

Firefighters battled the blaze for 10 days after it gutted the 14,000m² warehouse and burnt thousands of tons of chemicals.
Firefighters battled the blaze for 10 days after it gutted the 14,000m² warehouse and burnt thousands of tons of chemicals.
Image: Theo Japhta

A detailed atmospheric impact report (Air) into the United Phosphorous Limited (UPL) chemical warehouse disaster north of Durban in July last year has revealed some of the toxic chemicals to which thousands of KwaZulu-Natal residents were exposed.  

The report, produced by Airshed Planning Professionals, a consulting company based in Midrand, shows thousands of north coast residents from Phoenix to Umhlanga were exposed to hydrogen cyanide, hydrochloric acid and bromine, among other chemicals. 

The 322-page report identifies 62 chemicals possibly present in the smoke that spewed into the air when UPL’s 14,000m² warehouse in Cornubia was torched on the night of July 12 during the unrest and looting. 

At the time of the fire the warehouse had been storing 4,362 tons of pesticides, 1,177 tons of combustible solids/liquids and 35 tons of  solvents. 

It was “the most serious environmental catastrophe in recent times”, according to environment minister Barbara Creecy.

The report said the exact amount of agrichemicals that escaped with the water, which resulted in the Ohlanga River turning turquoise as chemicals spilt into the ocean, killing fish and marine life, was difficult to estimate and “remains the largest uncertainty in the current investigation”.

“Based on reported observations of the fire and a later site visit by the author, the warehouse fire underwent two distinct phases, namely a ‘ventilated phase’ and a ‘smouldering/pyrolysis phase’. When their supply became more restricted compared to the fuel available for combustion, high concentrations of CO, HCI, organic products, smoke and other inorganic acid gases would have occurred.”

It said smouldering continued from about 48 hours after the fire started until the arrival of the fire department.

Without the oxygen level (levels higher than 8%) needed for flaming combustion, the fire smouldered for at least 10 days before it was extinguished. 

“These combustion products would have included complex compounds, inorganic acids and CO and may have had a strong smell.”

Seven months after the fire gutted the UPL warehouse, police remain unsure whether it was a planned arson attack. 

Last week provincial police commissioner Lt-Gen Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi told the portfolio committee on environment, forestry and fisheries it was difficult to determine if the attack on the warehouse was planned before July 12, when it was set alight.

“We know there were people who had intentions to go into UPL. They broke in and burned it. Was this pre-planned or was it something decided on the spot? It’s going to be difficult to say.”

UPL said last week current data presented to the environmental department revealed its extensive cleanup and rehabilitation operations were showing success in many areas. 

“New information based on the results of monitoring efforts by the independent experts shows improvements in terms of possible issues that would be of concern at present vs when the incident happened. These positive outcomes are notable for the beaches and sea water, the estuary, Ohlanga River, the warehouse platform and the pollution control dam. Another positive aspect is the rapid fall in the concentration of detected pesticides.

“Furthermore, independent experts have been monitoring for possible acute and chronic public health risks associated with the spill. Analysis from November 2021 showed there were no reports of acute or chronic public health issues from surrounding communities. Experts are also awaiting the outcomes of a broader health risk assessment and monitoring in terms of human health will continue,” said spokesperson Japhet Ncube.

In December UPL said, together with eThekwini municipality and other relevant authorities, it was investigating the option of disposing of water from its pollution control dam into the sea through the municipality’s southern works sea outfall.


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