eThekwini fire crews respond to major chemical warehouse fire and explosion in Durban during mass riots and looting
The United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) chemical warehouse in Cornubia, which housed hundreds of hazardous herbicides, fungicides and pesticides, situated in Durban, was torched during the mass unrest in KwaZulu-Natal on Tuesday, 13 July 2021. The fire burnt for days and concerns mounted over the impact on the environment and residents' health. The chemical warehouse that contained about 1 600 hazardous materials, is situated near the Umhlanga Lagoon and the Ohlanga River and feeds into the Indian Ocean. Division commander Bruce de Gier, Northern Region at eThekwini Fire and Emergency Services said, “Brigade was despatched to ‘trucks alight’ in the loading yard on 13 July 2021 at 00h27. Response included one command vehicle and one water carrier/tanker from Umhlanga Fire Station and two rescue pumps from Verulam and Central fire stations.”
DC De Gier said, “On arrival, Brigade found five fully loaded horse and trailers well alight. After initiating an attack on the trucks, the Verulam officer noticed the doors to the warehouse had been broken into and he investigated inside. He discovered the warehouse was smoke logged, the sprinklers activated and flames traveling along the eight-metre high racking and the ceiling. I made the decision to withdraw, we disconnected all hose and withdrew all vehicles to the entrance of the site as the roof structure exploded and collapsed into the building.”
00h27 – despatched
00h31 – arrived on scene and commenced fire fighting
00h45 – withdrew to a safe distance upwind
00h50 – conflagration took place enveloping almost the entire occupancy
01h00 – commenced fire fighting, exterior attack from the upwind side of the building. SW wind blowing some 20 knots.
09h00 – shift change and fire fighting continued.
“The next eight days the Brigade worked in conjunction with heavy machinery to cut and remove the roofing material and gain access to the burning stored product underneath,” said De Gier. “There were no injuries reported but the building and stored product was totally destroyed.”
“Challenges faced included access to the interior of the building and water supply. The onsite water supply was destroyed when the building was destroyed.”
The pollution from the days-long burning fire at the UPL chemical warehouse resulted in dead fish washing ashore because of toxins from the Umhlanga lagoon. It's not only marine life that has been threatened but birds have also died.
On 17 July 2021, almost five days after the fire began, UPL issued a statement on its website, saying that: “Experts have advised that, as a precautionary measure, people should remain inside if they’re in the area of a smoke cloud. People are also advised to cover their eyes and nose by wearing an ordinary mask and glasses over their eyes.”
On 19 July 2021, with the airborne chemical fumes still spreading into residential areas, the company issued a further bulletin, stating that it had received expert advice that there was “minimal risk of any long-term effects to the health of people exposed to smoke from the warehouse”.
However, it added, “As a precaution, residents who are in contact with the smoke cloud are advised to wear double COVID-19-type surgical or soft cotton masks, of which the outer layer is kept slightly moist to trap particles and fumes.”
Barbara Creecy, the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, announced on 21 July 2021 that she was sending a team of experts to Durban to assess the situation and lend support. The team would include technical experts familiar with aquatic systems, epidemiology (health risk assessment), enforcement in waste and pollution issues and marine compliance.
Though Creecy indicated that there was a joint operations team in place that was “working with the team of specialists appointed by UPL to understand the extent of the impacts”, there was no indication that the Government had appointed its own team of experts at its own cost, to assess or evaluate the situation independently of UPL-appointed consultants.
Sources: Division commander Bruce de Gier, Northern Region, eThekwini Fire and Emergency Services; Daily Maverick