/ 12 December 2020

Fuel boycott looms over Engen refinery fire

Wenthworth Engen Dbn Refinery 27
Toxic environment: Wentworth in south Durban is right next to the Engen oil refinery. Community organisations want it to be permanently closed. (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Residents of the south Durban basin plan to call a consumer boycott of Engen filling stations, involving local community organisations and the taxi industry, over the company’s “arrogant” response to the fire at its 66-year-old Wentworth refinery last week.

They want the government to permanently close the refinery — which has been shut since the blast and subsequent fire — arguing that it is a threat to the safety of the community on whose doorstep it was built. 

Seven people were slightly injured in the fire last Friday, which took place just after 7am at the Tara Road refinery, which is located across the road from densely populated council flats in Wentworth. 

Engen had, sometime before the most recent incident, informed staff and contractors that it plans to close the 135 000-barrel-a-day refinery in 2023 and convert it into a storage facility for pre-refined, imported fuel. 

Residents are concerned that this will lead to the company failing to properly rehabilitate the area, which is plagued by sulphur dioxide emissions from the refinery. Several studies have linked these to high levels of leukaemia, cancer and respiratory diseases in the community.

Residents also want the Petronas-owned petroleum multinational to pay reparations to community members whose health has been compromised by its operations. They also want the city, provincial and national governments to act on existing charges laid against Engen over a series of emissions during May.

Desmond D’Sa, the chairperson of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), said the organisation would meet parliament’s environmental affairs portfolio committee to push for the permanent closure of the refinery.

“We need to shut this place down now, for good. This refinery is a danger to the whole south Durban community. It has been destroying our environment for years and now they want to run away from the responsibility of rehabilitating this area and making reparations to the people whose health they have ruined,” D’Sa said. 

“There needs to be a proper plan for the decommissioning of the refinery, reparation to the community and rehabilitation of the environment.”

At the same time, SDCEA and other organisations were meeting with the local taxi industry to call a boycott of Engen over its “arrogance” in response to the fire. 

“Since the fire, we have been trying to meet with Engen. They have been attempting to dictate who should represent the community, with the result that we are going to meet them in the streets and in the courts,”’ D’Sa said.

“We will be meeting with all other community organisations and taxi associations in south Durban this week to call for a boycott of Engen filings stations. We are asking community members not to fill up at Engen.”

D’Sa said that in the aftermath of the fire Engen had refused to meet on Sunday with representatives of 14 community organisations because of the presence of two representatives who were members of the South Durban Basin Community Development Trust, against whom the company had secured an interdict over a series of protests during 2018.

The two community representatives — Melanie Haines and Frank Alexander — together with the Right To Know campaign are challenging the constitutionality of the Regulation of Gatherings Act of 1993.

They want the apartheid-era legislation, used by Engen against the development trust over its protests, to try to force Engen to give work to local contractors, declared unconstitutional.

Street protests aimed at Engen were also set to start during the week. On Wednesday community organisations staged a protest outside the refinery, calling on the government and the company to meet with them to ensure that Engen rehabilitates the refinery site when it closes down the plant. They also want a firm commitment to compensation for residents with health problems caused by pollution from the refinery, and investment in community health facilities.

D’Sa said they would also be consulting lawyers to look at ways of forcing Engen to comply with environmental legislation. 

In May, charges were laid against Engen by residents over three sets of emissions that took place when the refinery, which was shut down during levels five and four of lockdown, started operating again.

“There are three cases that have been sitting with the city’s legal department since then. Nothing has been done to hold Engen to account,” D’Sa said.

Maintenance on the refinery, which was meant to have been carried out earlier this year, was deferred because of the halt in production caused by the Covid-19 lockdown, sparking fears on the part of the community that further incidents may be inevitable.

Alexander said they were concerned about Engen’s attempt to “control our movements and interfere with our right of assembly”.

“This is the kind of arrogance we have had to deal with. We are the representatives who the community [nominated]. Engen wants to dictate to the community who it should and shouldn’t choose as its representatives. It wants to control the community’s right of assembly and movement,” he said.

Engen spokesperson Gavin Smith did not respond to detailed questions from the Mail & Guardian about the future of the refinery.

Smith said the refinery had been shut down while the case of the fire was investigated.

“All refinery process units have been safely shut down to ensure that the plant remains safe while an investigation into the root cause of the incident is underway,”’ he said.

Smith said Engen was currently taking steps to ensure that there was no interference in fuel supply caused by the halt in production.

He said Engen would co-operate with investigations into the fire by authorities and remained committed to the safety of its employees and the neighbouring community.