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Hazardous chemical leak a ticking bomb

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By Tony Carnie

Durban - The eThekwini municipality and Transnet have come under fire for poor communication to the public after a large spillage of petroleum chemicals at the Island View chemical storage area in Durban Harbour, on the boundary of several densely populated residential areas.

A strong smell of chemical fumes in the vicinity of Island View was reported on Monday, and on Tuesday scores of fire and emergency, police and official vehicles lined up outside the entrance to Cutler Complex, a national key point that contains more than 1 000 storage tanks for petroleum and chemicals, some of which are highly toxic or volatile.

Five years ago, hundreds of residents fled from their homes in nearby Fynnlands, Marlborough Park and the Bluff after an explosion lit up the night sky above the complex, creating a fireball visible from uMhlanga and shattering windows in several homes on the Bluff.

This week, despite the fumes and presence of emergency vehicles, it was not until Wednesday that city officials released a statement confirming that an undisclosed volume of hydrocarbons and water had been found in an emergency drain for hazardous material.

Officials said the chemicals had been sucked up and emptied into a ballast operated by Engen, although the exact source of the spill was under investigation. Desmond D’sa, of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, said he had been trying to find out since Tuesday what was happening, but eThekwini and Transnet officials had not responded to phone calls.

In frustration, he sent an e-mail to several officials asking for information. A senior eThekwini official responded, saying: “What is the issue, Des? Most staff are currently in meetings and are unable to take calls.”

When The Mercury contacted senior eThekwini environmental health official Neil Larratt, he referred queries to the city’s communications office. Larratt responded to e-mail queries via eThekwini spokesman Thabo Mofokeng, saying that neither the volume nor source of the leaked hydrocarbons was known.

To his knowledge, hydrocarbons had not leaked into the harbour and had been contained in the emergency drainage system.

Asked why the city had not issued a statement until Wednesday, Mofokeng said: “The event appeared to be fully contained with little possibility of off-site consequences, hence the need for widespread dissemination of information was not deemed necessary. The need to communicate with outside parties would normally be made by the emergency personnel on the scene, in consultation with city management.”

Transnet ports authority spokesman Zama Mncwabe said there was “no foreseeable impact on the environment and community”.

Although the statement was dated November 13, The Mercury did not receive it until Wednesday. According to D’Sa, residents were given “no information” and had to rely on unofficial sources.

Residents had been asking the city to develop a proper emergency evacuation and communications procedure since 1997, he said.

Apart from the major explosion at Island View in 2007, there have been a number of fuel and toxic chemical spillages in recent years.

In 2002, Island View was cordoned off after a rusty storage tank spilt tetra ethyl lead, a potent brain and nervous system toxin.

In September this year, there was a spill from a petrol line owned by Engen. The company said the source of the spill this week was being investigated and there was “no evidence that this points back to Engen”. Sapref, the other major petroleum handler in the harbour, referred queries to Transnet.

Other than petrol, a variety of fuels and other products are handled at Island View, including jet fuel, solvents, spirits, power paraffin, methylene chloride, vinyl formic acid, isopropylamine, propylene oxide, ethers and phenols. - The Mercury

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