South Durban chokes as Engen refinery starts up

Elevated levels of sulphur dioxide emitted by Durban’s Engen refinery since it resumed operations last month, after it shut down when the Covid-19 lockdown started, have sparked a wave of respiratory illness and other health problems among residents of Wentworth and the Bluff.

The excessive releases of the foul-smelling gas at the refinery in Tara Road, Wentworth, took place on May 23, May 27, June 7 and June 8, according to residents, who reported the matter to the eThekwini municipality.

About 135 000 barrels of oil a day are produced at the Engen refinery. The Durban South Basin is one of the most polluted areas in the country and hosts a vast petrochemical and chemical industry.

The municipality this week confirmed that residents adjacent to the refinery had been exposed to “elevated concentrations” of sulfur dioxide while the 24-hour national ambient standard for particulate matter smaller than 10 and 2.5 microns had been exceeded on May 27.

Engen halted operations on March 27 because of a lower demand for fuel caused by the Covid-19 lockdown, saying that “stringent safety measures” would be maintained during the temporary controlled shutdown, during which about 600 employees were sent home. The refinery re-started operations on May 16 and returned to full production on May 26. 


Wentworth resident Liz Gamble said she and her pregnant daughter had been affected twice, once during late May and most recently on Sunday.

“The first time was about two weeks ago or so. There was a heavy gas smell at around six or seven in the evening. Everybody was complaining about the smell, running inside and closing their doors and windows. I started getting a headache and feeling nauseous, like I wanted to vomit,” she said.

Then at about 4am on Sunday “that same smell woke me up. I woke up my daughter, who is pregnant, and she also said it was the same smell.’’

Later the same day, Gamble, her daughter and her niece’s son became ill. 

“We had to take my niece’s little boy to the doctor. My daughter started getting sick with a running stomach. She was vomiting and was batting with her chest. We had to go to the hospital. She’s pregnant and we can’t take a chance with the baby.”

Another resident, who asked not to be named, said she had been hit by a wheezing attack.

“I never had a chest problem before. Now I have a wheeze and other chest problems. When the smell comes I get dizzy and my chest closes up. They release the gas at night or when it’s raining. It makes you dizzy and then you want to puke from it,’’ she said.

Desmond D’Sa, chairperson of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, said the renewed high levels of sulphur dioxide and other pollutants were placing people at increased risk, particularly in the light of the Covid-19 virus.

He said they were concerned that proper maintenance and repair work may not have been carried out ahead of Engen resuming operations because the company had laid off its casual maintenance staff during April and May.

D’Sa said he had reported the weekend incident to the municipality, which had sent out inspectors. 

“The emissions carried on for at least six hours, affecting people in Wentworth, Bluff, Austerville and Treasure Beach. We called the municipal inspectors but they couldn’t solve the problem,” D’Sa said.

“When the lockdown started, the industries stopped operating completely. We had clear skies and no smell here,” D’Sa said.

Gavin Smith, Engen’s external relations manager, said the refinery had been “‘safely shutdown” in March and “safely restarted” on May 16. “The Engen refinery maintains constant engagement with local authorities and operates in strict accordance with its atmospheric emissions licence and all applicable laws and permits.” 

eThekwini municipality spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela confirmed receiving complaints about emissions from the refinery since it started operating again in terms of a permit that allowed it to do so from May 12. eThekwini’s health unit responded to complaints on May 23. 

Mayisela said: “The municipality did address concerns regarding the pollution impacting on the community with Engen refinery and has requested additional information.” 

Mayisela said air quality monitoring at two sites near the refinery showed elevated sulphur dioxide levels and higher levels of particulate matter than permitted by legislation.

He said a report was expected later this month regarding Engen’s startup and shutdown permit, which required monitoring of pollution levels at the refinery and downwind of it to prevent people being exposed to higher levels of pollutants.

The Durban South Basin houses a big petrochemical and chemical industry and is one of the country’s most polluted areas. Residents and local organisations have for decades been at loggerheads with a number of the factories over high pollution levels.

“Once again the government is not acting in the interests of the people of South Durban. We already have a threat to our lives in terms of Covid-19. The threat to our wellbeing is being increased by the refinery being allowed to emit gases into our lungs and our homes,” D’Sa said.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper
Storyteller.

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