Long Read | Plan to clean Durban’s air falters

There are high levels of air pollution in the South Durban Basin, where industrial plants sit alongside residential homes, but a decades-old plan to clean the air is unravelling.

It has been 20 years since former minister of environmental affairs and tourism Valli Moosa launched a long overdue plan to clean up the clouds of toxic air pollution swirling around South Durban. 

Anger about air pollution and degraded human living spaces had been mounting for decades in this area, where people and polluting industries were clumped together as a result of political convenience, indifference and deliberate policy decisions.

Several formal and informal studies had also started to reveal evidence of an unusually high rate of cancer, leukaemia, respiratory disease and other health problems in the area. In response, on 27 November 2000, Moosa formally launched the South Durban multi-point plan to scientifically investigate the health profile of residents and progressively push down pollution levels from industry, traffic and other sources.

Human geography

Depending on how the boundaries are defined, South Durban is home to around 200 000 people scattered between Durban Harbour in the north and Amanzimtoti in the south.

The mainly impoverished and working-class residential areas of Merebank, Clairwood, Wentworth and Austerville lie at the heart of one of South Africa’s largest industrial areas. They are surrounded by two major petrochemical refineries, a paper mill, sewage treatment works, chemical factories, heavy truck traffic and about 600 other industrial operations clustered around Africa’s busiest harbour.

But there is another dimension to the abiding environmental injustices that persist today in residential areas that were creations of apartheid and industrial planning processes that go back more than 70 years.

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In a study titled ‘Creative Destruction’: Early Modernist Planning in the South Durban Industrial Zone, University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) researcher professor Di Scott sets out the history of several local communities, including how the descendants of indentured Indian labourers shipped to the British colony of Natal were soon “ostracised and subjugated by the white settlers and perceived as an alien temporary group”.

From the late 1940s, residents of the newly created Merebank, a neighbourhood of South Asian descent, and the township of Wentworth, where those the apartheid government later categorised as coloured lived, waged civic battles with the municipality over land expropriation, housing and the payment of rates for services that rarely materialised.

The former Durban City Council and industrial interests, says Scott, had already embarked on a sustained policy of land-use transformation, with the goal of creating a “productive [industrial] zone” in the south of Durban within an explicitly racial zoning plan.

After a protracted struggle, the Durban municipality largely succeeded in imposing its vision of a formal industrial landscape. In 1954, the council granted permission to the American-owned Standard Vacuum Oil Company to build a new petrochemical refinery directly adjacent to Merebank and Wentworth. In 1960, construction began nearby on the country’s largest refinery – the Shell/BP Sapref facility – and in 1964, the Anglo American Corporation negotiated with the council to build the new Mondi paper factory in Merebank.

24 November 2020: Jordan Muthusamy, 5, and his brother Alexander Muthusamy, 13, have health issues caused by the poor air quality at their family home in Merewent.

Scott said the process of industrialisation included many smaller piecemeal projects carried out systematically over decades, despite protests from the neighbouring communities now almost encircled by factory stacks.

More recently, one of the last green-lung spaces – the old Clairwood Racecourse – has been flattened to create a new logistics centre that many residents fear will add to the already high level of diesel-truck fumes.

Residents have been complaining for decades, not only about the rank smell of pollution but also about the extent to which it can make them sick, shorten their lives or potentially kill them.

Early days of the multi-point plan

As part of Moosa’s plan, a series of medical studies led by local and international scientists – jointly financed by the City and the Engen and Sapref refineries – found clear evidence that children living in South Durban had a significantly higher rate of asthma and other breathing disorders compared with children living in similar social and economic conditions in the northern parts of the city.

At the Settlers Primary School in Merebank, researchers found that more than 50% of children were suffering from some form of asthma (with 26% of these cases classified as severe or moderate).

But that study was focused largely on asthma and respiratory illness. It was not designed to detect more severe health problems such as cancer or leukaemia, which have been linked to prolonged exposure to benzene and other carcinogenic air emissions.

Nevertheless, the research team from UKZN and the University of Michigan in the United States also found clear evidence to indicate that people in the south of Durban were being exposed to a variety of toxic chemicals and metals, which increased their likelihood of getting cancer – a risk rate several times higher than internationally accepted guidelines.

A second objective of the R30 million multi-point plan – involving national, provincial and municipal government – was to progressively put the squeeze on local industries to reduce the level of a wide variety of pollutants, as well as tackle poisonous traffic fumes.

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Within a decade, emissions of some forms of pollution dropped significantly, notably the high volume of choking sulphur dioxide fumes from Sapref, Engen and Mondi.

A third element involved installing a new network of pollution monitoring stations to get a better measure of the level and variety of toxic pollutants in South Durban.

Built and designed with the assistance of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, this new monitoring system was hailed as state-of-the-art, comparable with the best in the world.

A decade of decline

But over the past decade, groups of residents have raised repeated concerns about the apparent neglect and deterioration of the system, as well as difficulty in accessing pollution data.

Initially, the data was available online on a website hosted by the eThekwini municipality, but problems began to emerge around 2011. Partial public access only resumed in 2019 when data was fed directly into the government-run South African Air Quality Information System. 

In 2013, the eThekwini municipality refused to release information about pollution licences and compliance reports from the Sapref and Engen refineries to non-profit organisation the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA).

The eThekwini information officer as well as the council speaker, Logie Naidoo, said the city was bound to protect the “trade secrets” and other proprietary information of the two refineries, and would not grant access in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

24 November 2020: Alexander Muthusamy shows the asthma pump he uses for his respiratory problems, caused by the poor air quality around his home.

The City’s refusal stood in stark contrast to the approach taken by the City of Cape Town, which readily supplied such information about the Chevron oil refinery.

The SDCEA took legal action, applying to the Durban high court for an order compelling eThekwini to disclose the records. Nearly three years after making the first request, the organisation withdrew its case when Sapref eventually provided a heavily redacted copy of the documents. Engen also later provided a redacted copy.

However, by the time the documents were handed over, they were largely out of date. And the national government had already agreed to make more current information available.

Loss of faith in monitoring system 

In October, declining community faith in the City and its pollution monitoring system was undermined further when data presented to the National Assembly suggested that levels of PM10 pollution in parts of South Durban were among the highest in the country in 2020. PM10 is made up of tiny, inhalable solid and liquid particles of metal, chemicals and dust that can damage people’s lungs and cause breathing and cardiac problems.

The data presented to Parliament by Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy was collected by the eThekwini municipality at the Ganges Secondary School in Merebank and indicated that the national standard for PM10 was exceeded almost every day for nine months. But when asked to explain the apparently sky-high readings, eThekwini officials belatedly asserted that the equipment at Ganges station had malfunctioned.

This raised two possible scenarios: either the readings were faulty, or the readings were correct but the City resorted to damage-control measures.

Either way, says epidemiologist Rico Euripidou from environmental health watchdog groundWork, the incident has further eroded community faith in the City’s stated commitment to safeguard public health.

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Euripidou said the recent readings also raise question marks about the usefulness of such data, if the municipal and national governments do not use it to take immediate action. “Why didn’t the alarm bells ring much earlier if they were actively monitoring their own stations to protect health?” he asked, pointing to a failure by eThekwini to maintain its monitoring stations.

“This is something we have seen already at the municipality during the Jacob Zuma presidency, a deliberate and systematic process to undermine the multi-point plan and air quality monitoring network and competency in Durban from which we have never recovered,” added Euripidou.

How have pollution levels changed in 20 years?

“There is no doubt that harmful levels of sulphur dioxide have decreased massively since the plan was launched, by over 90% from over 120 tonnes per day, mostly from the refineries and Mondi, to less than 20 tonnes per day.

“At the time, industry said that this would be impossible to achieve and that they would go out of business. But that never happened and they made easy substitutions of high-sulphur dirty fuels to low-sulphur fuels,” said Euripidou.

24 November 2020: Katelynn Muthusamy helps her five-year-old son Jordan use nasal spray at the family’s home in Merewent.

However, the multi-point plan and subsequent health study pointed out that real-time monitoring for more toxic and carcinogenic pollutants, including volatile organic compounds and benzene, was lacking and necessary.

“Some of these recommendations have never been instituted,” said Euripidou.

Rajen Naidoo, head of the UKZN occupational and environmental health department, is sceptical about the City’s recent assertion that pollution levels at the Ganges monitoring station were based on unverified data. 

“If these results are being made available to the public, they can’t use that argument [that the PM measuring instrument was not performing correctly]. What is the point of putting out data if people can’t trust it?” 

Naidoo added that there had been concern for a number of years that eThekwini’s monitoring system was not being properly maintained and that the municipality was withholding certain refinery emissions data by “hiding” behind supposed commercial confidentiality arrangements.

“If companies are polluting the atmosphere, they should take responsibility. This information should be available. It can’t be secret or confidential,” he said.

Naidoo said it is essential to transform the monitoring scheme to create a more proactive early-warning system, one that alerts communities to health risks when pollution standards are exceeded, especially for young children, the elderly and other vulnerable groups.

Plan undermined

“The multi-point plan was successfully completed and the municipality was a key driver of this project, [so] clearly this statement is not accurate,” said eThekwini spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela in response to Euripidou’s assertion that there has been a “deliberate and systematic process” within the City to undermine the multi-point plan.

“Budgetary allocations can and do vary over time. At points in time, the function was not optimally funded but this was corrected … The municipality has very diverse needs and the budget is apportioned to areas where the highest need is deemed to be. Budgetary allocation for air quality activities is always hard fought, but [it] is pleasing to report that such budgetary allocations have improved significantly.”

Mayisela suggested that the plan had a fixed project lifespan and was “never intended to be an ongoing process”.

“A downside to any such project is that during the project timeline, multiple financial and human resources are directed on the outcome. On completion of the project, most of these ‘outside resources’ return to their respective work streams.

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“The multi-point plan was initially driven primarily due to the very high number of sulphur dioxide exceedances experienced in the area around the refineries as well as the paper mill,” he said, adding that community health concerns had also been “dealt with” through the formal health study.

On why the City had refused to release copies of the refinery licences and permits, Mayisela said: “Such requests are not automatically granted, as the holder of such an authorisation has to be approached for their view on the release of the said information. In the cases you mentioned, such parties originally challenged the release of information pertaining to their operations, but it is understood that they later released redacted versions thereof.”

Industry response

The Sapref refinery said pollution levels had dropped significantly owing to the multi-point plan. Sapref claimed it has seen a 70% reduction in sulphur dioxide and an 85% reduction in PM10 fine dust particle emissions from its stacks.

“At Sapref, we are committed to carrying out our business in such a way that the health and safety of people is not endangered and with minimal impact to the environment. The company is committed to continually look for opportunities to further improve our PM emissions.” 

The Engen refinery did not respond to queries, while Mondi said: “Over the last 20 years, we have significantly reduced our emissions to well below our permit levels at the Merebank mill. Also, based on the location of the Ganges School, it is unlikely that the mill contributes to the [PM10] air pollution challenges currently being experienced there.

“Abatement equipment has been fitted to the mill’s boilers to remove particulate and sulphur dioxide from flue gas. These abatement technologies remove over 98.5% of particulates from flue gas. In addition, the desulphurisation plant and limestone injection has reduced sulphur dioxide emissions from the mill by 97%.”

Was there ever a timeline?

But Naidoo and Euripidou are deeply disappointed by eThekwini’s recent suggestion that the plan had a limited time frame or that it had achieved all its objectives.

Naidoo said the 20th anniversary of the multi-point plan was an occasion to celebrate and to reflect, and he had recently reviewed one of the original documents that outlined the diverse objectives of this “multi-point” plan.

“Within this document, I cannot determine a time frame for all the ‘points’. Clearly, the health risk assessment and epidemiological study had a time frame, but it seems to me that the other points are largely ongoing activities that ought to be the responsibility of the municipality. Phasing out of dirty fuels ends when these pollutants are phased out, establishing an air quality management system requires ongoing maintenance, controlling emissions is ongoing as is reviewing of standards.

24 November 2020: Residents walk home from a tuck shop in Merewent opposite the Engen refinery in the South Durban Basin.

“The multi-point plan was intended to establish Durban as a state-of-the art city for environmental pollution control. To my mind, the spirit and intent of the multi-point plan ends when that state is achieved,” said Naidoo.

Significantly, the national environment department does not seem to share eThekwini’s view that the problems have been largely resolved. Earlier this year, the department published draft proposals to establish a new multi-stakeholder forum to review and address continued concerns around air pollution in Durban. It has also proposed new government-funded studies to compare current health impacts to 20 years ago.

‘No need for new studies’

Naidoo, who was one of the lead researchers in a previous series of health studies published in 2007, said he is not convinced of the need for fresh studies on respiratory disease in South Durban.

“You can’t keep doing big research projects all the time, because it costs a lot of money. Nor can you afford to mount new studies that are inadequately funded. The question really is: What have you done with that information [from the previous studies]?”

Instead, he said the focus should be on improving health surveillance systems in South Durban to detect and monitor the number of children and other vulnerable people visiting clinics, emergency care facilities or general practitioners for asthma or asthma-like symptoms.

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Also, he is disappointed that the government has failed to set up a population-based registry to monitor cancer incidence in South Durban, as recommended in the health study more than a decade ago. As things stand, he said, the country’s laboratory-based National Cancer Registry is not designed to detect area-specific cancer hotspots across the country.

“I think we have already highlighted that [South Durban] is possibly a hotspot for cancer and that, with minimal resources, it is possible to implement a new population-based cancer registry in Durban,” Naidoo said.

Author experience

In the early months of 2000, when I worked for Durban daily newspaper The Mercury, I interviewed many residents about their experience of air pollution in South Durban. They included several mothers and fathers whose children had died recently or were being treated for various forms of cancer.

Sometimes we spoke to each other over the front gate. Others invited me into their living rooms to share tea and a snack while we chatted.

Among them was a father who welcomed the opportunity to draw more public attention to the issue of air pollution. But as we said our farewells, he shrugged and remarked: “I think you are wasting your time. Nothing will ever change here. The government looks after the big guys.” 

At the time, I was astonished by his pessimism. That was 20 years ago.

Editor’s note: Tony Carnie was awarded the 2001 CNN African Journalist of the Year Award for Health and Medical Reporting for his series on the effects of air pollution in South Durban.

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