Shell/BP pollution in Durban suburb undetected for more than a decade

Wentworth, Durban.  This low-income community in South Durban are all too familiar with pollution.  But a decade of pollution gone undetected is a severe human and environmental threat.  It all started with an unfamiliar, noxious smell creeping along the streets, into the humble Wentworth homes.

Wentworth’s pollution hazard is South Africa’s largest crude oil refinery, Sapref, located a stone throw away from Wentworth. This joint venture between Shell SA Refining and BP Southern Africa, processes 240,000 tons of crude oil daily.  The refinery has a 160,000 km underground pipeline network crisscrossing across Durban and the rest of South Africa.  But sections of this pipeline network close to the refinery plant and surrounding suburbs, are old, rusty, and defunct.  And it is through these defunct pipeline sections that more than a million litres of petroleum leaked, polluting suburbs.  The leakages caused soil, groundwater, and stormwater pollution.  Finally, after more than a decade of constant pollution, air quality tests confirmed that some homes in Wentworth were exposed to excessively high levels of petrochemicals, including benzene.  Benzene is a confirmed human carcinogen and long-term exposure to benzene air pollution can cause leukemia, and other potentially fatal health conditions.

Sapref’s planned action to rectify

Following the pollution that has choked the community for more than a decade and forcing families to abandon their homes, Shell/BP finally removed a total of 1,45 million litres of fuel from the soil and a staggering 190 million litres from groundwater resources.  The fuel was removed by either burning or sucking up of the fuel.  The refinery’s plans for further action include a multi-million fuel recovery and environmental remediation project, specifically for collecting leaked fuels.  According to the refinery, remediation will be completed by the end of 2013, and monitoring will continue  for at least another ten to fifteen years.

Environmental racism

Community concern about the refinery’s pollution remains flammable high.  The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance campaign that Sapref’s practice in the South Durban area is consistent with the continued environmental and health concerns caused by Shell and BP internationally.  The community’s concern also lies with the age of the refineries.  Originally built during the 1950s and 60s, the environmental and health impacts of the refineries are huge, and difficult to control.  South Durban residents are adamant that the refineries must close down.  Continued operation of old industries, even though still operating on a large-scale, and within the boundaries of a low-income suburb, is a case of environmental racism that cannot be overlooked.  The call to action? Community members are urged to continue reporting pollution and concerns to authorities and demanding independent review of pollution impacts to avoid the situation where pollution remains undetected.

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Photo credits: josullivan.59 and O.F.E via flickr

Sources: Newsletter of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (2003), Vol 1;  iolnews

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