/ 29 August 2009

PE may be harbouring a marine disaster

Green activists fear Port Elizabeth may be on the brink of a marine disaster caused by oil leaking into the city’s harbour.

Aerial photographs taken by concerned citizens show oil slicks stretching across the harbour. Green organisations have also found dead penguins covered in oil.

In addition, a damning report by Chippy Olver, a former environmental department official and now a consultant, found large-scale pollution in the harbour.

The Green Scorpions have issued pre-directives against Transnet and Shell South Africa, which could lead to legal action.

The Nelson Mandela Municipality also threatened legal action against Portnet. The Green Scorpions started investigating last October after Olver highlighted pollution in the harbour’s tank farm, which is overseen by Shell on behalf of the oil industry.

Shell denies that tank farms are the source of the pollution. The company commissioned an investigation by engineering company SRK Consulting, which found no leaks from either the tank farm infrastructure or a disused bunker line previously suspected to be the source.

Neil Chetty, Transnet’s acting port manager in Port Elizabeth, said the Transnet National Ports Authority and the oil tenants in the tank farm were still investigating the source of the leak ‘through jointly appointed expert consultants”.

Shell and Transnet have a deepsea boom and a number of secondary booms to prevent oil from dispersing into the harbour and have erected absorbent booms containing materials that soak up oil.

The harbour will close when the operation moves to Coega in the next decade and environmentalists believe this is why the companies are reluctant to invest too heavily in containing the pollution.

Rainer Schimpf, of marine conservation organisation Ocean Messengers, said Transnet has ‘failed 100% in protecting the fragile marine environment in Algoa Bay”.

He said the recent photographs he had taken show devastating pollution. ‘If the oil breaks through to the beach, tourism will come to a standstill,” he said. ‘Swimming will be prohibited.

The sea environment would be killed slowly.” Schimpf said there was a worry that the billion-rand squid and citrus industries, which use the harbour, could collapse as a result of pollution.