/ 15 September 2000

Cancer widows sue US petro-giant

Former employees of the Mobil refinery in south Durban claim to have been poisoned by the company that employed them — and are suing the petro-chemical giant in the United States. The refinery in South Durban was built in 1954 and has been owned successively by Mobil, Engen — the company that replaced Mobil after it divested from South Africa — and now Petronas, a Malaysian conglomerate which controls Engen.

At least two widows of former employees who died of respiratory cancer are party to the lawsuit. The litigation came after a large number of former workers — all suffering from diseases and cancers allegedly related to their employment at the refinery — got together to take action against their employers who, they claimed, had not taken adequate measures to protect their health.

The litigation comes in the same week that provincial MEC for Agriculture and Environmental Affairs Narend Singh raised the possibility of closing industry in south Durban down until pollution levels were reduced. Singh was reacting to a public outcry in Durban after the Mail & Guardian reported that levels of carcinogenic toxic chemicals in the area were among the highest in the world. A Durban newspaper, the Mercury, subsequently found in a door-to-door survey that levels of childhood leukaemia in the area were 24 times the national average. South Durban also includes the South African Petroleum Refinery (Sapref), jointly owned by BP and Shell, as well as other major heavy industries. At the time of going to press Singh was engaged in crisis talks with Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Mohammed Valli Moosa on air pollution in South Durban.

The US litigation is being handled by Richard Meeran — a solicitor from the British firm Leigh, Day and Associates. Meeran is also representing asbestos victims who are suing Cape plc – the British-owned company that mined asbestos in Prieska, Northern Province. In addition he represents 20 former employees of Thor Chemicals, who claim to have been poisoned by mercury while working at the company’s Cato Ridge plant. Although the M&G could not reach Meeran — who is currently arguing the Thor Chemicals case — a South African lawyer, Martin Potgieter, confirmed the litigation. Potgieter’s firm. Von Klemperer, Harrison, Davis, is assisting Meeran’s firm in the litigation. Mobil, the company that operated the refinery during the period the litigants were employed, is no longer represented in South Africa. The new claim relates mainly to poisoning from asbestos that was used to clad the thousands of pipes in the refinery. The refinery is bordered on all four sides by residential homes. In addition to so-called “fugitive emissions” — escaped gasses — the refinery also burns tons of dangerous chemicals every year. One former engineer who spoke on condition of anonymity provided the M&G with an affidavit of his claims. The engineer has been advised by his lawyers to remain silent until litigation is complete.

He also expressed concern as, when he was employed at the refinery, he signed an undertaking not to divulge any information relating to the refinery to the public. The engineer told how poisonous gases are burnt and discharged directly into the air. He also helped the M&G compile a list of 34 senior refinery employees who had died of various forms of cancer before they were 55. Most of those on the list died before the age of 40. He said: “I personally built a pipe-line from the spent caustic tank to a point where the stuff was burnt and discharged into the air. This was caustic soda that had been used to clean the impurities out of products. In addition to the spent caustic a large number of other gases were also led to the flare and burnt with fuel oil. These included chemicals with high concentrations of lead — tetraethyl lead and tetramethyl lead.

‘Anhydrous hydrofluoric acid was also burnt. This acid is so corrosive it will attack glass and although it was supposedly neutralised before being burnt, nobody was ever certain how effectively it was neutralised. This burning occurred at night to hide the black smoke that was generated.”

The engineer said so much asbestos was used in the plant at one stage that the air in and around the plant literally looked hazy from all the asbestos fibres. Although the refinery has been removing asbestos cladding from the pipes, a large amount of asbestos is still on the site. Much of this asbestos is now very old – and thus more dangerous.

Dr Mark Colvin of the Medical Research Council said while workers are most at risk, residents near the refinery are not safe either. “When asbestos is new and intact it is relatively safe. It is when the stuff becomes old, brittle and starts to flake that it is most dangerous. If the stuff is being removed then it poses a real danger to the community as it is moved around.” Colvin described the chemicals that the engineer claimed are incinerated at the refinery as “exceptionally dangerous and life-threatening”.

However, he stressed that he could not be certain what became of the poisons once they were incinerated. The M&G has also obtained an affidavit from a former worker at the Sapref refinery that large quantities of surplus gas are simply burned at the plant. However, the engineer pointed out that, until about 10 years ago, this was common practice throughout the world. The worker gave a list of 11 of his colleagues who had died of cancer of various types. A representative of the South Durban Environmental Alliance, Michelle Wilson, said the movement is planning a number of mass meetings for next week. “We have been inundated with calls since the extent of the pollution was first reported. We simply cannot cope with the number of telephone calls any more. We have had to call a number of public meetings to inform people of the situation.” Wilson stressed the refineries are not the only source of pollution in the area. “I have just had a phone call that a leakage of chlorine gas has taken place at Umbogintwini, near a primary school.

This is the third time the school has been gased with chlorine. Three children have had to be treated. We cannot exclusively blame the refineries.”

Engen refinery managing director Jim Frew said he was not aware of any litigation against the former owners of his plant. He confirmed that the plant was in the process of removing asbestos – but denied this posed any health hazard to the community, or to his workers. “This is being done strictly according to Department of Health guidelines. We are being very, very careful with the stuff and adhering to all guidelines with regard to its removal.”

Frew also said he was not aware of any poisonous chemicals being burned at his plant. “The gas you see being burned is liquid petroleum gas that is being burned for safety reasons. It is not poisonous or harmful.”

Engen also denied that anyone has ever been exposed to dangerous levels of benzene as a result of their refinery. benzene is the most likely cause of the high levels of leukaemia around the refinery.

They have claimed the air sample taken by the “bucket brigade” was unscientific and taken during abnormal conditions when the plant was shutting down — and was not a true reflection of the normal air conditions around the plant. Over the next five years the refinery plans to spend R450-million to reduce air pollution. This will reduce sulphur-dioxide pollution to 18 tons a day — down from 35 tons.

South Africa has a total of seven chief pollution officers to cover the entire country and a budget to monitor pollution that prohibits hiring any more staff.
n A representative for Moosa, Onkgopotse Tabane, this week said a budget of only R8-million a year had been set aside for air monitoring and that his department was desperately attempting to raise funds from industry to boost this budget. He said his department had entered into a number of long-term agreements with industry to have them reduce emission levels and would be taking action against those that do not reduce pollution levels. Of the seven pollution officers only one is based in Durban — a city with two major refineries and a number of significant other polluters.