The final report into the chemical spill at the United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) Warehouse in Cornubia, KwaZulu-Natal, is expected to be completed by the end of September 2021.
The incident, which took place in July, has had serious consequences for both people and the environment, including on the air, soil, freshwater and the ocean itself.
Addressing the National Assembly debate on the report by the Portfolio Committee of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries’ oversight visit following civil unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Barbara Creecy said the government’s response 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,” the Minister said on Wednesday.
These three priorities align with the environmental principles clearly set out in the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA).
“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. In addition, 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,” Creecy said.
The Minister said 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 investigation includes aspects related to environmental law, requirements for major hazard installations, relevant licensing requirements under the Hazardous Substances Act and the Fertilizers, 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,” the Minister said.
Creecy reiterated the importance of transparency in the manner in which government responds to an incident of this nature and supported the recommendation made by the Portfolio Committee to establish a multi-stakeholder forum. The forum would receive regular reports from the Joint Operations Centre and ensure representation of relevant stakeholders, including community representatives, researchers in the health fraternity and NGOs.
The Minister said no fresh contamination was being released from the UPL facility into the environment, but as an additional layer of precaution, eight shallow water and eight deep-water boreholes are being drilled to confirm that there was no contamination of the deeper aquifers.
She said the investigation into the spill, and the findings, would go a long way to restore public confidence in the investigative and remedial measures underway. It was also a requirement in terms of the National Environmental Management Act.