CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – South African authorities said on Friday around 1,600 chemicals were stored at a warehouse of India’s UPL Ltd when it was razed during violent looting in KwaZulu-Natal last week, causing potentially harmful air emissions and a greenish-tinged effluent to seep into Umhlanga’s protected lagoon.
The warehouse was one of hundreds of businesses attacked and looted in KZN and Gauteng provinces in some of the worst violence in the post-apartheid era, sparked by the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma on July 7 for contempt of court.
First noticed in the early hours of July 13, the fire was only completely doused by 5 p.m. local time (1500 GMT) on Thursday, July 22, officials at KwaZulu-Natal’s environmental affairs department said, as tonnes of dead fish were collected in the vicinity of Umhlanga lagoon and beach.
“The nature of chemicals… are highly hazardous. Those kinds of chemicals should not be disposed of at our landfill sites without prior consent,” said Siphumelele Nowele, chief director of environmental management at the KZN provincial government.
“We can all confirm the damage is quite considerable and it is going to take time to deal with it completely,” Nowele said, adding that besides marine life, there were also biodiversity and fresh water systems at stake. Several beaches have been closed as a result of the spill.
A spokesman for UPL’s local unit did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A company statement on July 19 confirmed the presence in the warehouse of a number of pesticides and fungicides which could cause skin, eye and respiratory irritation.
“The situation is being closely monitored and to date, no cases of acute human toxicity have been reported,” the company said at the time.
Local DA councillor Rory Macpherson told Reuters that when the warehouse fire started a large plume of acrid smoke was visible, before greenish-bluish effluent was noticed seeping into a river tributary that fed the Umhlanga lagoon and Indian Ocean.
“This has absolutely annihilated all forms of marine life, everything from worms to crabs to all the wonderful fish. There is no marine life left, zero in the lagoon and river tributary,” he said of a stream that runs next to an informal settlement.
WATCH Dead fish and crayfish wash up at Umdloti and Umhlanga, KZN
The DA’s Tourism member Hannah Shameema Winkler said today: “Umhlanga is a significant tourist destination attracting thousands of holidaymakers annually. The impact of the riots, and especially the on-going chemical spill, on businesses relying on tourism needs to be assessed. Umhlangas’s spectacular beaches, as well as the significant biodiversity in the area which is being destroyed is a devastating blow to the conservation of natural spaces which are a key drawcard to tourists.”
(Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Jenni Baxter)