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Government lays criminal charges against Cornubia chemical factory, UPL

THE UPL warehouse in Cornubia that was set alight during the week-long civil unrest in July. File Picture: Tumi Pakkies/African News Agency (ANA)

THE UPL warehouse in Cornubia that was set alight during the week-long civil unrest in July. File Picture: Tumi Pakkies/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Sep 3, 2021


Durban - CRIMINAL charges have been laid against United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) by the provincial government in terms of the National Environmental Management Act after the warehouse fire that had a health and environmental impact in July this year.

This came to light during the provincial portfolio committee on conservation and environmental affairs yesterday, when a presentation was made on the interim report on UPL.

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Provincial police spokesperson Captain Nqobile Gwala confirmed that a case had been opened at the Verulam police station for investigation.

The warehouse containing chemicals was set alight during the looting and unrest in the province in July. A list of its contents is still to be confirmed by UPL but a list was leaked which claimed that the chemicals were hazardous to one’s health.

A KZN economic development, tourism and environmental affairs (EDTEA) specialist in waste management, Dr Zakhele Dlamini, said they would go to court as the government and not as different departments.

“If we feel that the company, despite the directive we’re going to issue against them to provide us with information that we want and it’s still not in order, then we have to consider taking other steps like a court interdict.

“There are a lot of tools to try to force the company to provide us with the information so that we are able to account to the public in terms of what is happening,” Dlamini said.

He said leading the case would be former police officer Marie-Louise Lume, while both national and provincial governments would undertake the investigation. They would work with the police and their Green Scorpions.

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He added that they were unhappy with the information they were receiving from the specialists and noted that the reports were fragmented and an analysis was not done.

“Today (Thursday) we’ll be issuing the warning to the company, also to some specialists because they have a duty to give us what we want.”

EDTEA MEC Ravi Pillay said: “Criminal charges have been laid. There will be administrative action in terms of the act that will continue and we are not ruling out civil litigation.”

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He said it was an environmental disaster that could not be reversed, but they could try to mitigate the impact of it and shorten the long-term recovery period.

The affected area was an important node for tourism and they wanted at least some progress in terms of economic activity. They were engaging quite stringently with UPL on what they needed and were concerned about the slow progress.

Pillay added that the remediation process had included building dams, lime pockets, containing flow and pumping it out, sediment removal and disposal.

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“The remediation process and recovery of the estuary, for example, we’re talking about years. That depends on the immediate action and then it depends on the rehabilitation and then, of course, whatever modern methods there might be in terms of reintroducing aquatic life over time.”

Pillay clarified that beach closures were the eThekwini Municipality’s decision but they hoped they would be able to expedite the return of bathing. “It might be a staggered approach in terms of the geographic areas concerned. That is work in progress.”

DA KZN EDTEA spokesperson Heinz de Boer said the ‘cat and mouse game’ UPL had engaged in, with provincial authorities and the public, should come to an end following the laying of criminal charges for pollution.

He said that would be the first of many criminal and civil claims against the company – with two specialist investigators from national and provincial governments leading the charge.

UPL is accused of:

  • Receiving results of water, sediment, and soil samples but not providing an interpretation of the sampling results;
  • Allegedly receiving the sample analysis reports and simply informing provincial authorities that beaches should remain closed; and
  • Unsatisfactory responses to the National Environmental Management Act (Nema) S30 notices issued to the company.

“In spite of the fact that it has taken authorities some seven weeks to reach the level of laying charges, it is encouraging that this will now be the beginning of what is poised to be one of the biggest environmental legal battles in South African history,” De Boer said.

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