South Durban Community Environmental Alliance
Environmental Problems in South Durban

Toxic emissions from industries into the air and water are a potential threat to the health of communities, workers, and the environment in South Durban. So, too, are poor operating practices by some companies that have led to periodic oil spills and sprays, industrial accidents, inadequate safety and emergency plans for workers and neighbourhoods, truck accidents, and illegal dumping of toxic wastes.

Pollution from industry takes many forms. As the Executive Director of Water and Waste wrote to the Merebank Residents Association as long ago as September 1992, "The complaints of the Merebank residents relating to air pollution, noise pollution, traffic generation and safety, water contamination and visual amenity in the area were justified." Unserviced informal settlements that have rapidly expanded in recent years also have contributed significantly to water pollution.

The industries that have located in South Durban include major South African and international companies. Among these companies are ENGEN, until 1996 the largest South African-owned integrated petroleum group (now majority-owned by Petronas, the Malaysia petroleum company); Sapref, the largest crude oil refinery in Southern Africa (owned by Shell South Africa and BP Southern Africa); AECI, a very large conglomerate of 15 different chemical-producing companies south of Umlazi in Umbogentwini; and Mondi Paper Company, one of the largest individual paper mills in the world (a major subsidiary of Anglo American Industrial Corporation Ltd).

In addition, there are companies that produce refined sugar, plastics, chromium, asbestos products, textiles and fibre products, galvanizing and paint products. All told, there are approximately 120 "smokestack industries" that produce a wide variety of petroleum and other chemical products in South Durban.

The Basin is also the site of the Durban International Airport, located in the heart of the area. Plans for a new airport north of the city raise the important question of how the current site will be used - as a supplementary airfield, for new industrial development, or for housing. The major railway marshalling yards are located at the Bayhead. The South Coast Highway and the old South Coast Road cuts through the zone and are major internal transport routes.

Industrial air pollution is a priority concern in South Durban. South Durban industries emit many chemicals into the air, including various sulphur and carbon oxides, activated carbon with unknown quantities of dioxins and other pollutants, complex hydrocarbons, lead still emitted from vehicles, and other products of incomplete combustion. Height limits on smokestacks because of proximity to airport landing strips and abort flight paths inhibit dispersion of the emissions.

The industrial processes of these factories produce a large amount of air pollution. For instance, in 1974, sulphur dioxide emissions were estimated at 140 tonnes per day for the entire South Durban (some say it was as low as 70 tonnes). In the mid-1990s, the two refineries alone are permitted to emit that larger amount. Thus, it is not surprising that yearly average sulphur dioxide concentrations in the Wentworth and Merewent area rose from less than 20 g/m3 in the 1975-76 period to more than 60 g/m3 in 1989 (Durban Corporation, City Engineer's Department, n.d., circa 1990).

Because of the concentration of petroleum and chemical industries here, South Durban has one of the highest ambient sulphur dioxide levels in the country. In a comparison of sulphur dioxide monitoring stations nationwide for the five-year period 1990-94, five of the six stations that recorded the highest levels of average winter ambient SO2 concentrations were in South Durban (at the Wentworth Reservoir, Southern Works, Merewent, Brighton Beach and South Bluff).

A State of the Environment report of Kwazulu-Natal conducted by CSIR in 1995 for the province's Regional Economic Forum highlighted air quality in South Durban as a cause for alarm:

The assimilative capacity of the environment in some industrial development areas may be close to being exceeded. Bearing the limitations of the smoke and SO2 monitoring data, indications are that such air pollution concentrations may exceed health guidelines under some circumstances particularly in the South Durban area. Added to that is concern that only single pollutants are measured and assessed whereas major health impacts may arise as a result of mixtures of several pollutant types.

Monitoring of ambient sulphur dioxide levels in South Durban have been organised jointly by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), and Durban Water and Waste, and industry. The monitoring data show levels in excess of guidelines set by these stakeholders in the Sulphur Dioxide Liaison Committee that are comparable with recommendations of the World Health Organization. In the winter of 1995, the short-term (one-minute) peek guideline value was exceeded on 1 312 occasions. The 48/72 hour guideline value was exceeded on 34 occasions.

In spite of the often strong sea breezes, there is evidence of classical urban smog developing in Durban which results from ultraviolet interaction with the multiple industrial and vehicle emissions. Sometimes the low visibility due to smog during the winter inversions prevents planes from landing at the Durban International Airport.

Both the Umlazi Canal and canalised Isipingo River have suffered from chemical pollution from industry - from illegal dumping, leaching of poorly planned waste sites, and industrial spills and accidents. Mercury and chrome have been found in the Umlazi Canal and the sea. Periodic fish kills attest to excessive industrial effluents, sewerage from informal settlements, and oxygen depletion in the Isipingo River and lagoon. During heavy rains in early 1996, oil from the Sapref Refinery ran into the Reunion Canal and from there into the ocean, and ENGEN has had a similar spill into the Stanvac Canal, and a number of Prospecton industries have badly polluted the Isipingo River and Estuary. Fishermen at the mouth of the Umlazi Canal frequently report a wide variety of odourous and badly coloured waste water flowing from that canal into the Umlazi and the nearby area where they fish.

The Isipingo River, Umlazi River/Canal, and Reunion Canal have high concentrations of fecal bacteria from the dozens of unserviced informal settlements burgeoning in their catchments. Data on water pollution from CSIR and Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) show that these rivers and canals have the highest e coli, other bacterial concentrations, and ammonia levels on the Natal coast. Phenolic contaminants and pesticides also are found from industrial and agricultural pollution, including lead, zinc, and lithium heavy metal contaminants. Indeed, the only highly hazardous (H:H) waste site in KZN is the old waste site between the airport and the Mlazi Cuttings across from Merebank. The Chrome Chemicals factory site itself (adjacent to the Clairwood Race Course) continues to leach chromium in the stormwater into the canalised Umlazi River and into the sea.

According to a 1992 study for DWAF, the water in the northern arm of the Isipingo River is so degraded that it cannot sustain any aquatic life. In that study, the Isipingo River is deemed "not fit for recreational or environmental use," even though informal settlements currently are drawing household water from the rivers. For decades, until the unusual 1996 floods, the Isipingo River has been reduced to 3% of its original flow, because its waters have been diverted to the Umlazi channel and the Amanzimtoti and Umbogintwini Rivers to avoid flooding the airport and the industries in Prospecton during heavy rains. And more than one-third of that normal flow originates from the sewerage works, whose effluent reportedly is of higher quality than the faecal contaminated river.

The hazardous waste landfill that operated in Umlazi until 1996 accepted much of the wastes of nearby industries and 57% of Durban's general waste. The site overtaxed the sewerage processing plant, which feeds into the Isipingo River. Polluted groundwater that extended beyond the boudaries of the site went near to the Isipingo River.

The deafening noise of landings and take-offs of jetliners from the Durban International Airport often stops personal conversation, teachers' lectures, understanding of radio and television programs, and community meetings and cultural events. Residents of Merebank and Wentworth who are most affected by the airport noise also are accosted by incessant noise of various heavy industries, many of which operate around-the-clock. Industry managers state that they comply with local By-laws regarding noise. Traffic noises come from the Southern Freeway and industrial vehicles that travel on residential streets during the day and night to reach production and warehousing facilities. Although the departing jetliners turn northward before reaching the Bluff community, these residents, too, experience heavy tanker trucks on their streets and the port and industrial noise from the Fynnlands harbour area.

Hundreds of bright arc lights at industrial sites fill the night with unrelieved light in nearby neighbourhoods. From the point of view of industry, these lights are needed for security and safety; from the point of view of the communities, they are an unrelieved nuisance. Additional light comes from the airport, the highways, the industrial tankers, and the pulsating glow of the refinery flares, which are used for burning off excess petroleum products that otherwise might be released into the air.

Public Health Impacts
Many residents of Merebank, Wentworth, and Bluff believe that they face multiple health problems because of the industries located in their midst. Those area residents who work in the petroleum and chemical plants are potentially affected by toxic chemicals both at their workplace and in their neighbourhoods. These problems have not been adequately assessed.

In 1980 the City Medical Officer of Health completed a study of health impacts from air pollution that reportedly found no significantly different disease profiles in Merebank than in a control group in Chatsworth. A study released in 1994 by Dr. Barry Kistnasamy, however, found that children at a school in Merebank experienced approximately three times more respiratory illnesses than comparable children in the Indian community in Chatsworth. Illness related to air pollution include sinusitis, frequent coughing and chest congestion, blocked tear ducts which lead to eye infections, and bronchial troubles that can lead to pneumonia. There also is anecdotal evidence of many cancers in this area that merit further study.

The Durban Medical Officer of Health has documented dangerous levels of water pollution in the area. In 1991, this office declared the beach at both sides of the Umlazi Canal unfit for bathing, after a study by CSIR revealed unacceptable levels of lead, chromium, and faecal contamination, and levels remain high in 1996.

Adapted from Negotiating Environment and Development in Durban's South Basin: Communities, Industries, and Authorities, a 1996 report from the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Durban-Westville to the City of Durban as part of a project on Local Agenda 21. By David Wiley, Christine E. Root, Sven Peek, and Seyathie Ramurath.


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