Engen explosion latest in line of grievances

Environmental activists and residents in South Durban have long been asking for stricter environmental policies to clear the polluted air they breathe every day.

The explosion at the Engen refinery in Durban South two weeks ago is merely the latest in a string of events a resident such as Joanne Groom, born in the area and now an environmental activist, spends her time fighting against while also advocating for the rights of residents.

The Engen refinery is in the middle of the township of Wentworth and has been a site of controversy for decades because of the harm it causes to the health of residents. Former minister of environmental affairs Valli Moosa recognised the area as a pollution hotspot as early as November 2000. 

Groom, a community worker and communications officer at the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), says the harmful effects of pollution on human health and the environment are worsened by high rates of unemployment and poverty.

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“South Durban residents are surrounded by gas-emitting industries and people’s homes are dangerously located within a few kilometres [of] them. While some people find work from the industries, a lot more are suffering with respiratory illnesses that many have to live with until death. Unemployment also worsens the health status of residents because they cannot afford proper medical services.”

About 200 000 people live in the South Durban Basin, which is made up of Wentworth, a working-class area that was designated for people classified as coloured by the apartheid government; Merebank, which was an Indian township under apartheid; and the Bluff, formerly a working-class white suburb.

Large petroleum companies like Engen are allowed to pollute freely in South Durban, says Groom.

“In First World countries, they manage plants and they reduce their carbon footprint in the industries, yet here it is different. Even the standard set by the World Health Organization is not followed in South Durban by these industries. 

“We need stricter enforcement of the Constitution and environmental health policies, which means regulatory bodies should stay away from corruption and instil policies that are aimed at protecting the environment and the lives of people.” 

10 December 2020: Activist Joanne Groom lives in Himes Street, Wentworth, and leads the fight against environmental injustice in the area. 

Multiple burdens

South Durban communities carry the burdens of poverty, unemployment and drug abuse. Health factors are often at the core of these issues.

“Young people do not even qualify to work in the very industries that are causing most of the social and economic problems they face. This is because they fail even the induction because they have medical issues like bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory diseases, which disqualify them from working in the chemical industries,” says Groom.

The explosion at the Engen refinery two weeks ago hospitalised six employees and two residents, an 83-year-old and a toddler, who were treated for shock. A block of flats was also damaged, forcing about 28 residents into temporary accommodation.

4 December 2020: The Wilson family lost their home on 4 December and 11-year-old Kiara Manuel was rushed to hospital to be treated for burns on her hands, face and ears. The Wilsons are living in temporary accommodation nearby.

The Department of Employment and Labour has issued Engen with a prohibition order and the plant has been reportedly shut down with a 20m no-go zone around the affected area of the facility, pending the outcome of a safety investigation. 

Ishaam Abader, the acting director general of the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, said the provincial department would be completing a report on the incident in 14 days. 

Following the explosion, social justice groups and residents expressed outrage outside Engen’s facility, demanding the refinery’s permanent closure. On 9 December, protesters arrived at the gate to deliver a memorandum of demands. But Engen’s management failed to receive it, further fuelling emotions in the crowd.

SDCEA air quality and youth development officer Bongani Mthembu told the demonstrators: “This is disrespectful. We have been asking for a proper emergency evacuation plan and communications procedure since 1997. We are still waiting. Engen does not even have the decency to send an executive member to receive our demands because they don’t care for this community.” 

10 December 2020: South Durban Community Environmental Alliance air quality and youth development officer Bongani Mthembu.

‘Fugitive emissions’

This is not the first time residents have been directly affected by the refinery. Merebank, Wentworth, Treasure Beach and the Bluff residents suffered breathing problems after a gas leak at the Engen plant released methyl mercaptan into the air on 22 July.

The SDCEA is demanding accountability, compensation and community engagement from Engen.

“Engen must engage in a long-term participatory and consultative planning process to develop a decarbonised strategy that takes the needs and interests of affected communities,” says Mthembu, who has been an environmental activist for 14 years. The gradual progress on environment and climate change awareness demands more accountability from companies emitting “fugitive emissions”, he adds.

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“Growing up, my mother was always sick. She always had asthmatic attacks, which were very severe. I did not understand why she couldn’t function properly. As I grew older, I soon realised that the main cause for that sickness were the environmental effects of the industries that were in our area where we had previously stayed, in Montclair, South Durban.

“We need to continue lobbying so that companies like Engen take responsibility and accountability for the damage and risks they continue to impose on its workers and neighbouring residents,” says Mthembu.

Engen, a major and regular polluter, resumed operations in June 2020 after halting operations during the national Covid-19 lockdown. The brief reprieve for residents living in the South Durban Basin underlined concerns about the health effects of air pollution, even as petrochemical refineries such as Engen and Sapref began chugging away again. 

Pollution kills 

There are about 600 industrial entities in South Durban, including two of the country’s largest refineries: Sapref, which is a joint venture between Shell and BP, and Engen, which is majority owned by Malaysian oil and gas company Petronas. There is also a Mondi paper pulp plant, a Tongaat-Hulett sugar refinery, a sewage treatment works, a cluster of chemicals industries, major petrochemical and chemical storage facilities, textile manufacturers, metal smelters, oil refineries, breweries, and paint and motor factories. Many of the smaller industries emit pollutants nearer to the ground. Single Buoy Mooring, 1km offshore of the Bluff, is the main point of entry for crude oil into the country.

A health study conducted in 2002 at Settlers Primary School, which is between the Engen and Sapref refineries, indicated a 52% occurrence of asthma in children at the school, with 26% of these being persistent cases. This massively exceeds the average of 14% to 16% in Europe.

The study’s findings provided evidence that current levels of air pollutants are causing acute adverse effects among susceptible children, who make up a significant fraction of those exposed. Industrial pollution is clearly having a negative effect on the respiratory health of South Durban residents.

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Methodologies for determining the relationship between respiratory outcomes and air pollution are well established and studies show that there tends to be a higher incidence of respiratory diseases in working and middle-class communities.

In 2007, pressured by environmental and civil groups, the environment department established a plan for South Durban. Through this plan, the department, led by the eThekwini municipality, would provide strategies for air pollution management. The plan has not come to fruition.

“There were numerous complaints about odours, chemical leaks, flares, visible emissions and health complaints from the [South Durban Basin] community. Ambient SO₂ concentrations in the [area] were also among the highest in South Africa,” reads the report.

A 2017 Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health found that “diseases caused by pollution were responsible for an estimated nine million premature deaths in 2015 – 16% of all deaths worldwide – three times more deaths than from Aids, tuberculosis and malaria combined, and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence”.

4 December 2020: Engen’s refinery in Wentworth. The fire is reported to have started at around 7am on 4 December in Unit 44 of the North Complex, which was declared all clear around midday.
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