The UPL fire and chemical spill disaster is a warning!

Faced with increasingly extreme weather and potential for social turmoil, the UPL fire and chemical spill disaster is a warning that environmental legislation must be strictly applied, and the activities and products of companies more closely scrutinised.

Fifth largest agrochemical company
Coastwatch KZN is deeply concerned about the environmental and socio-economic impacts resulting from the burning down of the UPL chemical warehouse during the violent unrest in KwaZulu-Natal four weeks ago. The warehouse – which is situated in Cornubia, north of Durban – was set alight and burned for nine days before the fire was finally extinguished. It is owned by the Mumbai-based agrochemical giant, formerly known as United Phosphorus Limited (now UPL), which is the fifth largest agrochemical company in the world after Bayer, Dupont, Syngenta and BASF.  

A toxic cocktail of chemicals released into the environment
The warehouse, which became operational about three months ago, is thought to have contained over 1 600 hazardous substances consisting of insecticides, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, rodenticides and fumigants including several that are banned in the European Union due to known health risks to humans, animals and the environment. Large volumes of water were used to try and douse the fire. This led to contaminated water spilling  into the storm water system and the Umhlangana stream, thereby making its way into the Ohlanga River, the lagoon and the ocean. To date UPL has not disclosed precisely what chemicals were in the warehouse nor the exact quantities.

Devastating ecological, social and economic impacts
The impact has been devastating, causing untold environmental damage in Cornubia, Umhlanga and surrounding areas. The pollution has affected water, air and soil with at least three tons of dead fish caught in booms and having washed up on the shore. Seabirds are also at risk from eating dead fish and other marine life such as octopus and crayfish.

The black smoke emitted by the fire led to days of toxic fumes spreading across Umhlanga, Mount Edgecombe, Cornubia, Blackburn, Waterloo, Sunningdale, Prestondale and other nearby areas. Local residents exposed to the smoke or contaminated water (especially those with respiratory and heart conditions, children and the elderly) have been advised to seek medical attention should they suffer a range of symptoms from watery, red eyes and scratchy throat to gastro-intestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Due to their exposure, firefighters who fought the blaze without proper protective gear, are receiving occupational health assessments.

What the long-term effects on human health might be has not been determined but experience of past industrial accidents involving toxic chemicals indicate that this possibility should be taken seriously. The full extent and fall-out from the disaster is still unknown. It has been reported that it could take up to two years or longer for degraded marine and aquatic areas to recover. The immediate effects are: the death of countless marine and other life such as frogs and insects; ocean and river dead zones; and potential damage to natural vegetation and farmland. Livelihoods of subsistence fishers, and communities that depend on the ocean, have been badly affected while the closure of recreational beaches, rivers and other facilities is having a detrimental impact on already hard-hit businesses that cater to beachgoers and tourists.

Cornubia’s vision to be green and sustainable
Cornubia has been lauded as “the first proposed sustainable and fully integrated human settlement in the region”. Earmarked as a mixed-use development comprising residential, commercial and light industrial with various social and public facilities including: schools, clinics, police stations, post offices and multi-purpose halls, the stated goal is for it to become “the most liveable City in Africa by 2030."  As such, it has been declared a national priority project by the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission. In view of these worthy objectives, it is concerning that such a toxic, hazardous industry was included in a development zoned for mixed use, which aspires to being green and sustainable. Of even greater concern is that it appears no specific environmental impact study was conducted in relation to potential chemical pollution since only one ‘integrated environmental assessment’ was done for the entire Greater Cornubia mixed-use development project. 

Better environmental planning and implementation of regulations
Addressing a joint sitting of Parliament in October 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that – in order to facilitate the roll-out of numerous ambitious infrastructure projects under South Africa’s Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan – regulatory processes, such as water use licenses, environmental impact assessments and township establishment, would be fast-tracked. It follows therefore, that required environmental procedures may not have been adhered to. We all want to support sustainable, job creating, poverty alleviating initiatives but it is vital these be compliant with existing environmental regulations and that better environmental planning, based on proper risk assessment, be undertaken. It begs the questions as to how many other warehouses may potentially be ticking time bombs should any unforeseen situations arise?

Another major concern, given the hazardous nature of the chemicals being housed at this plant, is the question of safe storage and contingency plans in the event of an emergency. Although this particular disaster appears to have been caused by arson, there is always the potential for accidents to happen, as was the case in February 2021 when a major explosion caused a massive fire at UPL’s Jhagadia plant in Gujarat. When asked about the design of the Cornubia facility and standard emergency containment measures to ensure no hazardous substances could leave the site and pollute the surrounding environment, UPL responded: “It was a brand-new state of the art facility; however, this question is best addressed to the landlord.” No response was given when asked to describe: “the exact nature of emergency containment of water overflow at Cornubia? Is there any bunding or on site water retention|overflow dams on the site? If not, why not?”

An accident waiting to happen?
At a press briefing on 23 July, eThekwini Metro pollution control officials confirmed they were not aware of any application for a Major Hazard Installation (MHI)* permit having been submitted by UPL. In addition, there was no record of a Scheduled Trade Permit having been approved in terms of the City of eThekwini’s by-laws, which regulate air emissions and pollution. A site-specific EIA was also not conducted as the UPL facility was approved as part of an integrated approval for Greater Cornubia. *Major Hazard Installation: “A major hazard installation is an industrial facility that manufactures and/or stores relatively large quantities of chemical materials, which if they were to lose containment, would result in effects that could cause harm to personnel and members of the public outside the facility.”

In a press release on 31 July, UPL maintains it is not responsible for the outcomes of the fire and also absolves itself of liability on the grounds that no one could have anticipated such an event, which was the result of “extraordinary circumstances”. It states: “… the leasing and operating of a warehouse for its products did not trigger an environmental assessment under the NEMA … In relation to the risk assessment requirements under the Major Hazardous Installation (MHI) Regulations, UPL took the view that its warehouse operation did not constitute an MHI and that it did not need to conduct a risk assessment … the warehouse was located in an appropriately zoned facility that, in the opinion of its technical staff and external consultants, was fit for purpose.” It also declared that the “designed fire and containment systems were more than adequate, in ordinary circumstances.”

If this is indeed the case, we should be very worried as there are probably many more warehouses containing similarly hazardous products and substances that have not been subjected to adequate scrutiny and regulation. The authorities must become far more vigilant and proactive in effectively regulating such industries and enforcing compliance. We also need municipalities to properly fund, staff, train and equip our fire departments and other emergency services so they are not at risk and know how to react/deal with, for example, different types of fires. An adequate Emergency Incident Response is a requirement of our environmental laws and increasingly, climate change is presenting another very real threat for which we need to be prepared.

Climate change and extreme weather is the new normal
Hugely destructive, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, as witnessed in Europe at the same time as South Africa was going through its human-instigated destruction. This inescapable reality is currently sweeping the world, with devastating floods and wildfires on four continents and Africa/South Africa is not exempt. Climate change is now the new normal. Projections for Durban include a 15 percent rise in intensity of rainfall and a possible 20 percent increase in stream flow – in other words, the severity and frequency of flooding is going to escalate, putting existing infrastructure and settlements at risk. In KZN, we have already been subjected to a number of freak storms and flooding in recent years, and there will be more. We are therefore likely to experience more damaging situations making it the height of recklessness not to prepare for this eventuality.

The petrochemical industrial complex
Perhaps the most important question to be asking is why are we manufacturing these huge quantities of toxic chemicals, deceptively marketed as ecologically sustainable ‘crop protection products’? A study published in Science Direct titled, 'Chemical pollution: A growing peril and potentially catastrophic risk to humanity' spells out why we must urgently move away from habitat-destroying, energy-intensive, industrial farming methods that depend on chemical fertilisers and pesticides produced by the petrochemical industry, and which contribute massively to climate change and ecological breakdown: “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. There are 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.”

Not only has the use of toxic chemicals accelerated world-wide over the past fifty years, but in September 2020, a year-long investigation by Unearthed and Public Eye found that in 2018, EU countries issued plans “to export more than 81 000 tonnes of pesticides, containing chemicals prohibited in their own fields. Poorer countries like South Africa, Ukraine, and Brazil – where experts warn hazardous pesticide use poses the greatest risks – were the intended destination for the bulk of shipments. Among the banned agrochemicals were substances found by the EU to pose potential health hazards like reproductive failure, endocrine disruption or cancer, and environmental hazards like groundwater contamination or poisoning of fish, birds, mammals or bees.” The article also reveals that carbendazim (a fungicide classified by the EU as ‘mutagenic’ and ‘reprotoxic’) is one of the highly hazardous pesticides being exported “by multinational Arysta LifeScience, now part of UPL, and destined for countries including Bangladesh, Chile, Ecuador, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and even Iraq.”

It is clear that there are many lessons to be learnt from this fire and chemical spill tragedy and we need to learn them fast! We simply cannot afford such future catastrophes – climate resilience must be an essential part of planning for all new developments while existing developments must be reassessed and upgraded. This will provide the opportunity to transition to the genuinely green economy we so desperately need, and which the government should be embracing as part of its ‘Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan’. For this to succeed, it must include the principles of a Just Transition if we are to truly create a ‘Better Life For All’ while protecting the environment.

As the newly released IPCC report makes clear, global heating is widespread, rapid and intensifying, with extreme weather such as floods, droughts and wildfires becoming more commonplace. It states unequivocally that the only hope of stabilising global temperatures within 20 to 30 years, is for strong urgent action to bring about an immediate reduction in CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases. This means that the industries, which are the main contributors to ecological and climate breakdown, must come to an end. Agrochemicals (together with plastics) are part of the petrochemical industrial complex that is dumping enormous amounts of carbon pollution into the air and destroying the life systems of the Earth upon which we all depend.  


Above: Dead fish on the shores of uMhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve Below: A Spill Tech clean-up crew collects dead fish caught in a boom across the Ohlanga River.  

The impacts on the Hawaan Forest and uMhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve are especially alarming as these remaining habitats are home to a large diversity of fauna and flora. WESSA KZN eco rangers, uMhlanga Improvement Precinct (UIP) staff, and ecologist Alistair Starke have set up water stations on game paths near the river to encourage the animals to drink from these rather than the river. 

Photos by Margaret Burger