After a major pollution disaster caused massive numbers of fish to suffocate and die in the Msunduzi River in KwaZulu-Natal, Willowton Oil, the company responsible for the catastrophe, has been asked to establish a disaster fund. Dr Anthony Turton, a renowned water specialist from the Centre for Environmental Management at Free State University, says that the clean-up could take many years if the pollution has spread to Inanda Dam.
It has been called one of the worst ecological disasters of its kind to take place in the province. In August 2019, approximately 1600 cubic metres (1,6-million litres) of oil and caustic soda poured from the factory in Pietermaritzburg into the Msunduzi River. Initial measures to contain the spill were undertaken but the poisonous liquid was soon detected as far as Cato Ridge, as well as the Umgeni River, which feeds Inanda Dam.
Environmental consultant and river specialist, Pandora Long, says the company responsible now has to take responsibility. “Willowton Oil must set up a disaster fund and mobilise both the public and the business community to help them. This is not something they can do on their own,” says Long. She adds that she doubted whether Willowton Oil and government authorities could address the immense scope of the pollution without substantial aid.
Almost all aquatic life killed following river spill
Long says that almost all of the aquatic life that runs along the river has been killed. She adds that she is not sure that Willowton Oil and others fully comprehend the cost of this pollution disaster, in both financial and ecological terms. “If anything good can come out of this disaster, it will be to reignite public awareness of how important this river is – an incredible living system that feeds our economy and biodiversity,” she explains.
Willowton Oil released a statement saying that they were doing everything possible to contain and remediate the affected environment. The company appointed SpillTech and Drizit emergency response teams to aid in their efforts. The company said the disaster was caused by a vegetable oil storage tank that collapsed, bringing a tank of caustic soda (used to make laundry soap) down in the process. Oil and caustic soda then spilled out of the factory complex and into the nearby stream.
River spill caused by failure of the regulatory process
Dr Turton responded by saying this was “an industrial accident of a significant scale that could have been avoided.” He says that water use licenses for industrial businesses stipulate the use of berms or bunds to contain all spills of hazardous liquids. This also requires formal reporting to the regulating authorities at specified intervals, as well as site inspections. “This incident provides evidence of failure of the regulatory process,” says Turton
KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs, Nomusa Dube-Ncube, says the incident will be fully investigated, and, if negligence is found, appropriate action will be taken. Images of countless dead fish floating in the Msunduzi and Umgeni rivers have gone viral on social media. There have also been reports of cows dying on the banks of the Msunduzi River, but these reports are unconfirmed.
Willowton Oils marketing director, David Swaiden, says that Gift of the Givers is providing water to affected communities. He states that local authorities simply do not have the reach and manpower to “get out there” and help all of the residents that are threatened by the river spill.
The Msunduzi municipality has warned members of the affected communities to avoid the Msunduzi and Umgeni rivers. The eThekwini municipality also asked people not to drink water from Inanda Dam and to prevent livestock from drinking from the contaminated water systems.
Image credit: Duzi Disaster Fund
Averda is a leading waste management provider with over 50 years of experience across three continents. Through growth, transformation and engagement, we strive to find new ways of managing waste while protecting the community and environment.
By pairing international expertise with local insights, we have secured our position as one of South Africa’s most respected providers of waste management and industrial cleaning services. We also operate in the recycling, pipe inspection, CCTV, infrastructure inspection, hydro-demolition, high-pressure water jetting and catalyst handling industries.
Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for the best tips on recycling and the latest industry news. See our Instagram and YouTube channels for more insights into environmental affairs and our work with local communities.