Invisible threat to Muizenberg

A project heralded by the South Peninsula Municipality as exemplifying “the spirit of technology” could poison the air over the Cape Riviera with chlorine gas, one of the planet’s most lethal silent killers.

When the local council meets later this month it will be presented with a recommendation for a R180-million optic fibre manufacturing plant at Capricorn Park in Muizenberg.

The council’s urban and environmental services committee has also recommended a zoning change to facilitate this job booster—350m away from an overcrowded informal settlement and across the road from an upscale marina housing complex.

Both, say detractors, will face the invisible threat of being blown into the Atlantic by the hydrogen gas and nitrogen stored on the site if the project goes ahead. It’s a tough call for Muizenberg, once the resort of choice for Johannesburg Jews. With Nigerian drug dealers and teenage prostitutes new additions to the narrow streets around the decaying beachfront, the desperate need for job creation is self-evident.

The factory will create an estimated 150 new and 250 indirect jobs in the first phase of building, which includes a 12-storey tower. The possibilities of chlorine leaks and hydrogen explosions have locals jittery.

The Western Cape provincial government has the final say on the rezoning decision, but many people in Muizenberg, particularly in the Vrygrond informal settlement and nearby Marina da Gama, are unaware of the potential danger on their doorstep posed by what they believe is a “science park”—despite the change in plans announced at the first public meeting on the issue in December.

Only two years ago South Africa’s poverty hearings, chaired by Cape Town’s Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, questioned why noxious industries had always been sited next to the poorest of the poor without any consultation with the community.

Indeed, in recommending the little- reported local amendment for the Capricorn site from use as a science and technology research zone to a “noxious industrial use zone” the municipal committee noted that “in future, and where necessary, more extensive and inclusive public participation should be undertaken”.

The only serious objection has been submitted by the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, which argues the original rezoning application was for a light industrial “science park” alongside approved hotels, shopping and leisure facilities. By having changed the zoning conditions, the society says, a precedent is set by the municipality for other noxious industries.

Then there’s the “extremely hazardous” chlorine, with a study showing a few breaths of concentrations of only a thousand parts a million proving fatal. In those of 10 parts a million, illness and breathing complications follow in half an hour.
The society’s letter of objection says: “Several factors may make the release of chlorine gas from the plant in dense settlements, like Vrygrond, more devastating to the community.”

And the release of “highly flammable and explosive” hydrogen gas from a storage tank, causing an explosion and fire, could lead to a ripple effect of massive destruction.The developers argue that the optic fibre manufacturing process releases only limited amounts of chlorine gas and that the air released from the plant will be cleaned to remove the chlorine.

The council has appointed local consultants to carry out a detailed environmental-impact assessment, including the investigation of chlorine, hydrogen and nitrogen emissions and the risks of their bulk storage on the site.

Other conditions attached by the municipality to the rezoning approval are a hazard installation risk assessment in terms of the Occupation Health and Safety Act, an expanded scoping study for possible pollutants in the soil, and authorisation for a listed activity in terms of the Environment Conservation Act.

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