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Oil refinery blast: another reason SA should take industrial risks seriously

What has government done to protect residents of communities surrounding the refinery?
Firefighters dousing the fire at the Engen oil refinery in Durban, South Africa, in December 2020. Image: Getty Images

A blast at an Engen oil refinery recently rocked the community of Durban South, an industrial basin in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Several employees and community members were treated for smoke inhalation. The Conversation’s Nontobeko Mtshali asked Llewellyn Leonard to share his insights on South African communities and environments exposed to industrial risks.

Read: Explosion at Engen refinery in Durban

The recent explosion at the Durban oil refinery is one in a long list of pollution incidents in the area. What has the government done to protect residents of communities surrounding the refinery?

The local South Durban Community Environmental Alliance recorded a total of 55 major industrial incidents in South Durban from 2000 to 2016. In 2018, the south Durban basin was declared a pollution hotspot, according to the provincial government’s Environment Outlook Report.

Although there were previous attempts by the municipality to implement measures to monitor and address pollution risks in south Durban under the previous Multi-Point Plan, the plan fell away in 2010. The plan was initiated by civil society and was a collaboration between the government, industry and civil society. It resulted in an improved air quality monitoring network. The efforts have since collapsed because new local government leadership didn’t take the plan forward. This led to a complete collapse of air quality monitoring systems.

Due to poor governance, air-monitoring equipment hasn’t been maintained, industrial risks in south Durban haven’t been addressed and the government hasn’t shared air quality information. The actual status of air quality in the area is unknown. Residents and civil society can’t make informed decisions about industrial development issues. This has implications for participation and transparency. Thus, monitoring, enforcement and compliance have been weak.

Should a petrochemicals facility be in the middle of a residential area? What’s the experience like elsewhere in the world?

Definitely not. It’s always in the interest of people for industries not to be located in a residential neighbourhood, as we see in places like St James in Louisiana, in the US. The risk of air pollution and industrial accidents cannot be ignored, especially when such industries aren’t regulated or well managed or don’t abide by the law.

In some parts of the world governments have managed to locate heavy industries away from residential neighbourhoods. A case in point is Jurong Island in Singapore, which is an amalgamation of seven offshore isles. It was formed in 2009 and is home to over 100 industries, including ExxonMobil and Shell.

The locations of some hazardous industrial sites were informed by apartheid policies. Many of these industries are still operational. What are the implications and what should the government be doing about it?

The geographic setting of communities that were exposed to industrial risks during apartheid hasn’t transformed since democracy. During apartheid, the South Durban Basin became home to two of South Africa’s four oil refineries and Africa’s foremost chemical storage facility. Currently, it’s home to over 600 industries. It’s still an industrial hub that includes residential areas.

Due to the ageing infrastructure of operations such as Engen, the government should’ve long decommissioned such industries. They’ve always been a high risk for residents living next to them. Civil society, particularly the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and groundWork, has been calling on the government to decommission dangerous industrial operations and move them away from residential areas. This hasn’t happened. Industries operate knowing enforcement of regulations has been limited. They have used the Regulation of Gatherings Act to ban residents protesting outside the facility.

A crowd of people, including children, gathered near an oil refinery, which is located in a residential area.
Residents gathered after the explosion at the Engen oil refinery south of Durban.

The result of inaction by government has been increased health risks for south Durban communities. Asthma rates are among the highest in the world. The incidence of leukaemia has reported as up to 24 times higher than the national average.

As far back as 2002, a study by medical researchers at the local Settlers Primary School bordering the Engen refinery, found that 52% of learners suffered from severe asthma. It was also found that children in the region were much more likely to suffer from chest complaints than children in other parts of Durban.

Clearly government needs to monitor and enforce laws and regulations for existing industries and implement pollution reduction plans. No industrial expansion must be allowed that would increase pollution levels in south Durban. Government needs to work with industry to set up a 24-hour asthma and cancer clinic in south Durban, as residents called for over four years ago.

Are there best practices South Africa can draw from to strike a balance between economic development and the well-being of communities and the environment?

If South Africa continues with business as usual, with high intensive and polluting industries, including weak governance and enforcement, we’ll continue to see environmental incidents, dangerous levels of air pollution and resultant health impacts. The result will be continued protests by civil society against government, polluting and reckless industries.

The country needs to move away from a reliance on dirty industries, particularly fossil fuels. This will require introducing renewable energy industries that are clean, efficient, and safer for people and the environment.

In the United States, the renewable sector employs more than 3 million people. South Africa can increase employment opportunities by growing the share of renewable industries.

People must be trained and employed to establish the renewable sector and service it throughout the value chain – wholesaling, installation, maintenance, distribution, manufacturing, operations and research. Some of the top renewable energy employment countries are China, Brazil, the United States, Japan, Germany and India. South Africa must learn from others and seize the opportunity to move to clean industry.The Conversation

Llewellyn Leonard, Professor Environmental Science, University of South Africa

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Owned by Petronas of Malaysia and some Chinese oil Company…..get them to clean it up and show some respect for our environment and human rights, issues sorely neglected in their own countries.

Good luck with that. I suspect those companies care even less for environmental and community issues in Africa than they do in their own countries which, as you say, is about fork oil.

If the press is correct the closure of Engen is scheduled for 2022 or 2023. Obviously the risk of environmental issues will increase as one does not maintain a plant scheduled for closure to the same standard as a plant that is scheduled to continue production indefinitely.

misinformation and prejudiced much..Engen is owned by south africans

WRONG, SUNSHINE—–Engen is majority owned by PETRONAS (74% holding), one of the world’s leading oil companies and a member of the FORTUNE 500. PHEMBANI, a black-controlled South African company focused on the broader energy sector, holds 21.2%, while a Phembani-led consortium holds the remaining 4.8%.

Concentrate, drop your misinformed superiority and I suggest you read wider than Die Son.

Engen is part owned by USA?

Why don’t you do some R&D instead of just shooting from the hip and accusing me of “prejudice”?…phht

Engen is majority owned by PETRONAS (74% holding), one of the world’s leading oil companies and a member of the FORTUNE 500. PHEMBANI, a black-controlled South African company focused on the broader energy sector, holds 21.2%, while a Phembani-led consortium holds the remaining 4.8%.

Unfortunate, fixing this problem requires Intelligence, Wisdom, Technical Skill, Integrity, and Determined Leadership.

NONE of which qualities are in any evidence at senior – let alone junior – government levels.

Spot-on Jonnoxx. Part of the problem is the exodus of skills from SA. (Skills being the ANC’s best export product)

LMAO — When this refinery was constructed there were no “communities” in its proximity at all.

The communities were allowed to encroach on an industrial site and no amount of codswallop/spin will change that.

Why not advocate the closure of all petroleum and coal sites in SA and then the peeple can live in harmony with nature???

Covidiots !!

I agree. Everyone wants the products produced by chemical plants but shuns the environmental issues that plants cause. The fact is that every industrial and domestic process has a negative effect on the environment in the form of some or other effluent or pollutant. All management can do is to limit any harmful effect on the environment.

You must be joking! You want the government to protect people?! Come on! That comment is typical of the uninformed and naive collectivist narrative.

Take a step back, and ask yourself “who is this government on which you rely for protection?” It is the same government that presides over the fifth most-violent country on earth, the “rape capital of the world”, the political home of Ace Magashule, the mindset that enabled the Mirikana massacre and the Life Esidimeni disaster. The government is merely a reflection of the average voter. This implies that you want your next-door neighbour to protect you!

Protect yourself, man! Don’t buy a house near a fuel depot or a refinery. A socialist government cannot protect you against any adversity, because that government is your biggest threat.

“the government is your biggest threat”.

Good point.

Recently, I looked again at the images of a string of burning freight trucks in the dark of night…caused by protesters/looters/foreign driver issue….and thought to myself:

…these images looks like AS IF an enemy air strike took out the entire freight convoy! There is NO DIFFERENCE when it’s done by our own citizens. Then you realise, a govt that does not respond and machine gun the enemy, must be silently supporting such destruction.

Hence we DO NOT NEED the SA military at all, as this “air strike” was not prevented by the SA Air Force. The “enemy is within”….the state is the enemy of SA businesses.

Tip of iceberg of apartheid where industries like this were built far away from white suburbs and near indian,black or coloured townships.
The ANC government needs to rectify this abuse from the white apartheid government
Defund the apartheid beneficiries and deport these racist whites that dehumanised poc.

South Africa is becoming a province of europe or backward US state.


You are delusional & being fed with all the ANC lies.

SA is nowhere near moving towards a ‘province of Europe’. Maybe used to resemble that.
The opposite in fact: SARS is slowly moving towards a 3rd world African state, and showing cracks of failure.

The refinery has been there for nearly 70 years….long before people chose to build and live as neighbours!

Do some R&D before you spout on about “racist whites”

PS Your petticoats are showing!

With respect, if you so hate caucasians and western technology, I suggest you fill your car with water and deport yourself …anywhere but here!

PS bet you are using some or other western technology too spread your hateful comments?

Grow up.

This facility has been in operation for almost 70 years. Engen is owned 76% by Petronas and 26% by SA BEE interests. Petronas is Malaysian government-linked but is a multinational corporation with strong ties to the USA and Canada.

This fuel and gas corporation mainly mines reserves in the seas and oceans of Malaysia and the once-independent Burma (renamed Myanmar and controlled by the Malaysian junta). It is an important part of the US-led military-industrial complex.

The Durban South Engen refinery facility is nearly 70 years old and has failed to upgrade into a mega-refinery.

Mega refineries are the current standard for productivity and profitability in the fuel industry globally.

It is the third-largest refinery in SA and has been losing money hand over fist for quite some time.Struggling to keep up with basic housekeeping and necessary repairs and maintenance schedules too it appears.

There is a rumour it will close in 2023 but government is pandering for it to remain open or be converted to a fuel storage depot.

“The oil and gas industry employed an estimated 7500 people and had an estimated annual turnover of over R196billion, with the refining segment of the industry contribution almost 99% to the total industry’s turnover,” said KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs Nomusa Dube-Ncube.

Although this facility employs only about 650 people directly, the industry is said to account for more than 90000 indirect jobs in the distribution and marketing segment of the industry value chain. A lot of built-in graft to the Buthelezi’s, Sicela’s, Ferreira’s and their trucking syndicates, Transnet and the rest of the logistics gangs?

Personally, I fail to see how the person who represents the concerns of heavy industry is the same person who makes decisions relating to beneficial moves for tourism and the environment. Bit of good governance procedure and separation of duties urgently needed here?

Some may not agree, but as a primarily social being, humans collectively designate government officials to effectively represent our best interests from health, hygiene and occupational points of view.

Not cosey up to multinational capital and the military-industrial complex. Can you dig it?

End of comments.





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