Speech by Minister Barbara Creecy in response to the debate in the National Assembly on the report by the Portfolio Committee of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries on its oversight visit post the civil unrest to KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng
25 August 2021
Honourable Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly
As we have heard today, the fire incident which took place on the 12th of July 2021 at the United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) Warehouse in Cornubia, KwaZulu-Natal has had serious consequences for both people and the environment, including on the air, soil, freshwater and the ocean itself.
Given the scale of the incident, and the numerous regulatory authorities involved, government has focused on three priority areas:
The first and most immediate was to ensure that further environmental and health risks were contained; the second is to oversee and guide the assessment, clean-up and remediation process and the third priority is to investigate the incident within the ambit of the regulatory environment applicable to such a facility.
These three priorities align with the environmental principles clearly set out in the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA). It is these same principles that will equally be applied to the decisions and actions of all organs of state involved in the complex remediation effort which is currently in progress.
Simply put, NEMA places people and their needs at the forefront of its concerns, it says that pollution of the environment must be avoided and where it cannot be avoided, it must be minimised and remedied. It states clearly that where there are adverse health effects and environmental damage, these must be paid for by those responsible. And it emphasises that decisions must be taken in an open and transparent manner and access to information must be provided in accordance with the law.
And so Honourable Members, public accountability by everyone involved in responding to an incident of this nature cannot be over-emphasised. This does not only apply to our actions as government, but includes UPL and the specialists who have been appointed to support the cleanup and remediation of an environment that is held in public trust.
I will therefore make every effort to ensure that the ongoing response and stages of remediation take place properly and within a reasonable timeframe. For this reason and despite the fact that the environmental framework under NEMA assigns the majority of the functions in this situation to the Kwa Zulu Natal Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environment, I have, in consultation with the MEC, deployed specialists from our Department to provide the necessary support in all the environmental disciplines which are currently being assessed and investigated.
I am expecting my team to provide their own report to me and I will be engaging with the MEC in the coming days with the view to particularly addressing a number of concerns raised. The first critical aspect of the deliverables from the specialist team is due to the authorities today, and the work will be assessed against the provisions of the NEMA which governs the conduct of Environmental Assessment Practitioners.
These specialists are duty-bound by law to disclose all pertinent information to the authorities, even if such may be prejudicial to UPL. I am concerned by the delays with the submission of the results, and reports to the authorities as this hampers their ability to make timeous decisions in the interests of the public.
As you may be aware, a Joint Operations Centre (JOC) was established to co-ordinate government’s response around the first and second priorities. Through the JOC, led by the KZN Provincial Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs, government has been exercising oversight over the immediate measures implemented. These include the extinguishing of the fire; the issuing community alerts; activation of a spill response team to address contaminated water in the storm water and river systems; closure of the beaches and the taking of samples. Sampling over time is crucial to ensure sound decision-making on multiple levels.
As indicated earlier, our department sent a team of specialists to support the JOC, to guide immediate mitigation and on containment measures, but to assist in reviewing the findings of specialist reports that will be generated by UPL’s team, results from sample analysis and proposed remediation plans.
Specialist assessments that are currently underway and will inform final remediation plans. In relation to air pollution, it includes a Human Health Impact Assessment and Air Dispersion Modelling and Air Quality Impact Assessment. In relation to water, Surface Water and Aquatic Impact Assessment, Groundwater and Surface Water Contamination Assessment and an assessment on the Estuarine and Coastal Impacts.
Subsequent to the visit of the Portfolio Committee to the UPL site on 11th August, the eThekwini Municipality supported by the Department of Health (and the health specialists appointed by UPL - Apex) initiated a public health monitoring and assessment programme which includes collecting information on and assessing the number of complaints, their status, and continuous monitoring thereof.
This assessment was undertaken during the week of the 16th to the 20th of August in the Blackburn informal settlement, given its proximity to the UPL fire incident as well as the environmental issues that are currently prevailing in this area.
This particular service will continue on a weekly basis and complaints by this community will be elevated for the necessary responses to be initiated. At this stage, the Blackburn community has not raised major health concerns related to this incident which would warrant an immediate response. The authorities are not however ruling out the possibility of the need for future interventions.
For the broader community which has access to health care facilities, a questionnaire is being finalised which will be circulated to both private and public clinicians in the affected areas.
In addition to the immediate response by the health officials, there is also an Air Dispersion Model which is being compiled, coupled with a Health Risk Assessment. This is a predictive exercise aimed at determining the areas where a more intensive investigation must be undertaken to evaluate if the public residing in those areas was exposed to any chronic or acute exposures as a result of this incident. The results of this investigation will inform an appropriate response.
In relation to the fresh water impacts of the Ohlanga river, two spill response companies continue to remove the contaminated sediment within the affected tributaries immediately below the UPL facility. Containment structures are in place in the Ohlanga river to capture and prevent any mobilisation of contaminants still trapped in the sediment. The PH of the water in these tributaries is currently being elevated through the use of lime in order to break down the toxicity of the remaining contaminants.
It is also important to note that there is no fresh contamination being released from the UPL facility into the environment, but as an additional layer of precaution 8 shallow water and 8 deep water boreholes are being drilled to confirm that there is no contamination of the deeper aquifers.
We will continue to monitor the estuarine environment, to ensure the combination of efforts upstream of the Omhlanga estuary result in an improvement in the ecology of this area.
A decision has been made not to mechanically breach the estuary mouth, but rather to allow for a dilution effect to take place through the over wash of sea water which comes through at high tide. The riparian health is further being monitored by comparing the affected system to a benchmarked site in close proximity of the Omhlanga estuary.
The multi-departmental investigative team which was set up to address the third priority has almost finalised a preliminary report which sets out the findings of the investigation, specifically into the regulatory environment in which the UPL warehouse was required to operate. The final report will be released to the public, and we are hoping that this will be possible by the end of September 2021.
This investigation includes aspects related to environmental law, requirements for major hazard installations, relevant licensing requirements under the Hazardous Substances Act and the Fertilisers, Farm Feeds, Agricultural Remedies Act as well as the various legal requirements set out in the local by-laws. The report will guide further actions that need to be taken by government to address any non-compliances detected, but also to implement proactive measures to strengthen the regulation of this sector.
Finally, I would like to reiterate the importance of transparency in the manner in which we respond to an incident of this nature. I therefore support the recommendation made by the Portfolio Committee to establish a multi-stakeholder forum that will receive regular reports from the JOC and ensure representation of relevant stakeholders, including community representatives, researchers in the health fraternity and NGOs.
In my view this will go a long way to restore public confidence in the investigative and remedial measures underway, and it is a requirement in terms of the National Environmental Management Act.
I thank you.