The recent petrol tanker explosion at the Engen plant in Merebank has once again highlighted the danger facing the local community and its surrounding areas. On 19 November 2007, Engen’s largest petrol tank went up in flames. It is believed that a bolt of lightening struck the tank burning up petrol and equipment worth about R120 million. Besides the financial loss of this incident, the lives of thousands of residents in the Sapref region were threatened.
Desmond D’Sa, Chairperson of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) said there are numerous threats facing human inhabitants in this area. “Residents are always at risk of getting killed or murdered by gas leaks, explosions, fire and run over by the hazardous tankers trudging through community roads.”
More alarming is that this incident precedes another tanker explosion at a storage facility in Island View in September killing one person. On 6 December 2007, there was a second fire at the Engen plant, just two weeks after the first one. Pops Rampersad an Island View resident and a member of the Krishna Rabilal Foundation said, “This is the second major fire in the space of three months. People in the area are panicking and are questioning the frequency of these disasters.”
In the light of two devastating explosions in a short space of time, the housing of petrol tankers so close to residential areas is questionable. “These tankers need to be relocated away from any human inhabitants, this is the only realistic safety mechanism that can be put into place to prevent the loss of life,” D’sa said.
Ivan Moses, Chairperson of the Merebank Residence Association said that community members are up in arms with regard to the situation. “The number of explosions has caused tremendous anger in the community. The issue is not just an explosion and flames. There are short and long term effects of this.”
The 19 November fire took 57 hours to burn out. In this time residents, many of whom who suffer from respiratory diseases due to the atmospheric pollution in the area, were exposed to the harmful chemicals that engulfed the air. “We have recorded 15 cases where community members where taken in for treatment, but this figure could be greater if private medical attention seekers are taken into account,” Moses said.
According to D’sa, companies like Engen need to be held accountable for the repercussions of their activities. “Engen, Mondi, Sapref and other companies who spew out their poison on society and violate government laws can only be held accountable when there is strong legislation and a vigilant enforcement agency that will not hesitate to take action against them. Communities need legal assistance to take on the giants of industry.”
Whilst the explosion took place at the Engen plant, its impact is beyond the boundaries of Engen. Residents are angry about the city’s response and inefficiency in handling the crisis. “Although it is understandable that these disasters can happen, the response to attending to these disasters needs to be addressed urgently. A broad framework of what to do in these situations needs to be properly communicated to residents,” Rampersad said. “They need to know who to address their queries with, who to listen to, what to do in the case of an evacuation, so that you don’t have residents uprooting their families in a state of panic,” he added.
Reiterating the inefficiency on the part of eThekwini Municipality in responding to this disaster, Moses said, “It is disheartening to note the lack of responsibility on the part of the municipality. They need to have a reactive and proactive disaster management programme put in place and effectively communicate this with residents.” The fire burned continuously over three days emitting harmful chemicals in the air, putting the residents at greater health risks. “The city needs to activate proper medical resources immediately in disasters like this. They keep talking about a disaster management plans which they haven’t delivered on,” he added.