Engen’s refinery in Wentworth, South Durban, is on fire after an explosion rocked the 66-year-old facility early on Friday morning.
Emergency Medical Services spokesperson Robert said six people were treated for smoke inhalation, but that no other injuries or deaths had been reported.
The explosion took place just before 7am, during the early morning rush hour in and out of the South Durban industrial and residential basin.
Thick black smoke is billowing out of the refinery — the future of which had been uncertain after the multinational oil company had informed contractors earlier this year that it may be closed in 2023 and converted into a storage and distribution facility — and firefighters are battling to bring it under control.
Residents of the flats across Tara Road from the refinery, which has a capacity of about 135 000 barrels a day, are being evacuated by emergency services, which were called to the area at 7am.
A fire broke out in one building across the road from the refinery but was extinguished shortly afterwards.
McKenzie said the cause of the explosion was not yet known. All six people who had been treated were in a stable condition in hospital.
“Our house moved. My ears nearly exploded,” said one resident, who asked not to be named. “We were terrified.”
Jay Naidoo, a resident in nearby Chatsworth, said they had felt the blast. “My whole house shook — the foundation and roof and windows. We thought that it was an earthquake, or that something had landed on the roof.”
In 2005 a fire broke out in one of the refinery’s solvent tanks, causing a short shutdown, while in 2008 it had to be closed for repairs after a fire.
Engen spokesperson Gavin Smith said the company was still investigating the cause of the fire, which had been brought under control by the eThekwini fire department and Engen’s firefighting teams.
Smith said the company “regrets” the fire and was cooperating with the relevant authorities in ascertaining its cause.
The refinery, the third-largest in South Africa, has been the site of controversy for decades over the harm it causes to the health of residents in the South Durban basin. It has also been the target of protests by residents — and by local contractors who accuse the multinational of failing to employ locals.
In October, Engen’s management team confirmed that it was considering its options regarding the refinery because of the drop in demand for fuel caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. These included converting the facility, which employs 650 people, to handle imported, refined fuel, after 2023.
Engen spokesperson Gavin Smith said the company “regrets” the fire, which had been extinguished by Engen’s firefighting team and eThekwini fire services. Smith said the cause of the fire was under investigation.
“Engen will provide an update about the incident as soon as further information is available,” Smith said.”Safeguarding the health, safety and well-being of our people, community and environment remains our utmost priority,”‘ Smith said.