Sapref, the country’s biggest petrol refinery, has come in for praise and criticism for its handling of toxic air pollution issues in heavily industrialised south Durban.
Presenting a report to the eThekwini health department, Sapref health and safety manager John van Belkum said that certain forms of air pollution from the refinery had been reduced dramatically.
Emissions of sulphur dioxide had dropped 70 percent and PM 10 (fine dust particles) by about 86 percent over the last 10 years. The volume of volatile organic compounds had also dropped by about 50 percent in that time and measurements of benzene (a potent cancer agent) remained well below national ambient air standards.
Nevertheless, Sapref was still emitting about 12 tons of sulphur dioxide, 3.5 tons of nitrogen oxides and half a ton of PM10 dust particles every day, along with 80 000 tons of carbon dioxide every month.
Sapref (along with the Engen refinery and Mondi paper mill) is among the top three air polluters in south Durban and all three have come under growing pressure from neighbouring residents and government departments to reduce pollution.
In 2006, a study by University of Michigan and University of KwaZulu-Natal researchers found that asthma rates among children at a neighbouring school in Merebank were among the highest in the world.
While no peer-reviewed studies on cancer rates in the area have been done, an informal study by The Mercury in 2001 suggested a high rate of cancer and leukaemia among young children in Merebank.
Since then, the city’s health department has set up one of the most advanced air monitoring networks in the country and the big three industrial air polluters have been compelled to gradually reduce emissions.
Rico Euripidou, of the environmental watchdog groundWork said it was “almost unbelievable” how much the situation had improved over the past 15 years.
Euripidou said Sapref seemed to be spending significant sums on social investment projects involving education, HIV awareness and primary health care.
But there was no evidence that it had spent any money on asthma prevention clinics or research into asthma and cancer rates among its neighbours.
Desmond D’Sa, of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, said: “People are dying from cancer and other diseases in our community every day. . .
“So we say take your social investment money and put it in the right direction.”
Sapref spokeswoman Lindiwe Khuzwayo said the company did not wish to be prescriptive and preferred to be guided by health authorities.
Source: The Mercury