Although civil unrest is not likely to be a top concern for most companies, it might after the uprisings in South Africa last summer. Over a week, July 2021 saw rioters set fire to buildings in KwaZulu-Natal, including a warehouse belonging to UPL, a North African agrochemicals producer.
The chaos started after Jacob Zuma, the former president, was sentenced to a 15-month imprisonment for refusing questions in a corruption investigation. It was also reported that the chaos was caused by economic inequality, joblessness, and the Covid-19 pandemic.
UPL could be criminally liable for any environmental harms that were caused by the release chemicals. Although the UPL rented facility was intentionally set on fire and burned to ground, subsequent investigations revealed that UPL had more than 500 cubic meters of chemicals stored in its warehouse. These volumes would have required additional environmental permits, risk assessments, and possibly mitigation measures. UPL did not have them.
The violence, described by many as the worst in South Africa since Apartheid ended, led to an attack on the UPL site at night on 12/7. Security concerns and the inability to access adequate water supply and personal protection equipment made it difficult to extinguish this fire. Parts of a warehouse structure had to come down in order to allow firefighters access to the smoldering materials.
The fire lasted for twelve days and overwhelmed all safety and security features in the new facility. The fire A large plume of smoke was released into the atmosphere, and the large quantities of water used for its dousing overran catchment systems.
UPL, an Indian-owned company, quickly hired an industrial cleaning service to contain the water. Environmental specialists also collected samples from the Ohlanga river and uMhlanga lagoon nearby to determine if there was any environmental contamination. Due to civil disturbance, the materials were not transported to labs for analysis. Local residents were left uncertain about their chemical exposures.
Smoke and spillage
In the wake of the flames UPL highlightedIt was found that many of the products in its warehouse were water-based and would not pose a health risk. Most of the herbicides and fungicides contained in its warehouse were likely to have been completely destroyed by the fire.
The firm acknowledged that some herbicides such as chloroacetamides and phenoxycarboxylic acid may not have been completely burned out. Two skin, eye, respiratory tract and respiratory tract irritants, the alpha-cypermethrin (and lambda–cyhalothrin) may have been present in smoke.
The entire ecosystem was severely damaged and it may take many years to recover.
Experts had already stopped surface water runoff by late July and were working with environmental authorities in order to control groundwater contamination.
Nearby beaches were closed due to dead marine life being washed up on their shores. The public was asked to refrain from fishing and surfing in those areas. Water and sediment samples from the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast were taken. The South African government launched a probe to determine the regulatory framework that the UPL warehouse was operating in, as well as the environmental effects of the fire and chemical releases.
Extensive environmental damage
UPL claimed that the spillage was due to factors beyond its control and that there was no way it could have prevented it. The company has also pledged R300 million (14.5million) to support cleanup efforts. UPL pressed for the reopening of the affected beaches from October 1st, after independent analysis by a team.
But on 3 October, South Africas environmental agency A preliminary report has been releasedAccording to the report, beaches and the surrounding environment were significantly damaged. The fire caused widespread pollution and damage to property within its immediate area. However, firefighting water also caused land-, water-, and marine pollution. This led to the destruction of protected areas and biodiversity.
Empirical evidence indicates that the entire ecosystem, which includes UPL and the Ohlanga tributary and the uMhlanga Estuary, as well as the beaches and coastal environment, has been severely impacted. It may take several years for this incident to be fully recovered, stated Barbara Creecy (South Africa’s minister of forestry and fisheries, and environmental affairs). Present the findings of the investigation.
Around 3.5 tonnes of fish died as a result of the immediate environmental damage. The water downstream of and upstream from the Ohlanga confluence was found to have a high acute/short-term toxicity hazard. This led to widespread death among aquatic organisms. A sampling of the Ohlanga upstream from the impacted tributary revealed that it was also highly polluted. It was notable that the vegetation died.
Assessment requirements not met
UPL was heavily criticized in the governments report. It found that UPL had illegally stored hazardous chemical by failing to apply and obtain the required environmental permits, licences and authorisations. Additionally, it failed to complete required risk assessments and implement appropriate controls. These lapses would have likely led to a serious pollution event if there was a fire in the UPL premises, regardless of whether it was accidental or deliberate. It stated that these missing steps could have allowed the company or the warehouse to reduce or prevent the spread of pollution.
The criminal offence of engaging in an activity without an environmental authorization carries serious potential penalties
Creecy reports that UPL was charged in a criminal case in September. South Africa’s National Directorate of Public Prosecutions will decide whether to pursue the charges.
Responding to the report UPL stressedThe report fails to mention that the fires that caused the pollution were started by rioters, which the emergency services were unable stop. The company pointed the finger at others, pointing out that the government’s response was insufficient. They also took a variety of inconsistent, disorganized and uncoordinated actions.
But Michael KiddProfessor of environmental and pollution law at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, stated that UPL needed to obtain an environmental authorization based on an environmental impact analysis to store the chemicals in the warehouse. He adds that the company had to apply to the municipality as the chemicals it was keeping were potentially harmful to the environment and to human health.
Kidd claims that UPL would have followed these regulatory requirements if the warehouse location had not been approved. And if it had been, information relating the chemicals stored there would be made public before the event. This would have allowed for a faster response from those who were exposed to the smoke and others.
Kidd says that UPL must clean up all the legal provisions. Chemistry World. Yes, it is a criminal offense to carry out an activity without an environment authorisation when it is necessary. There are severe potential penalties. These can include severe fines and imprisonment.
Kidd says that the UPLs story should be a warning to other chemical companies. It is clear that chemical storage units holding hazardous chemicals in large quantities should not exist in areas close to schools or residential areas. Additionally, it shows that proximity to rivers can also pose a problem without adequate containment.
Another lesson is that chemical facilities should be designed so that there is no run-off of chemicals. Kidd states that chemicals ended-up in the river because UPLs’ containment measures for runoff and water were inadequate. If they had been adequate, this wouldn’t have happened.
Most of the beaches were closed The park was finally reopened on 2/11 for recreational use. Although the experts have concluded that the beaches should be open, further analysis and monitoring will be done and the public will be informed about the results, explained the Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs. The department stated that monitoring will continue until evidence is available to show that any risk has been sufficiently mitigated.
The partial reopening of the beaches follows the recommendations made by experts on safety. They suggested that they be reopened to recreational purposes but that a zone of one kilometre north, south, and one kilometre beyond the mouth of the uMhlanga estuary should be maintained. This means that 96% are now open but they are not open for fishing.