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Engen refuses to engage with Durban’s blast affected community

The chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee on environment and fisheries Fikile Xasa demanded that Engen urgently meet with Wentworth’s community, in the south of Durban, which suffered after their plant blast in December.

The committee visited the plant following the 4 December explosion at the Engen refinery in Wentworth that left people homeless, some injured and a young girl severely burnt on her face and hands. At Friday’s visit, Engen was not present. Xasa said that the mega oil producer would need about R800-million to rebuild the refinery.

“Engen didn’t come to the meeting, saying they fear community members. We are not happy with that. Because upon arrival, we didn’t see a harmful community. We feel like they failed in their part,” said Xasa.
This is not the first time the committee has had a problem with Engen, said Xasa, adding that the company’s pollution and disregard for the environment has been a concern.

“In 2019 there were community members and activists who came to us concerned about their health in the same area and levelled complaints against them.
They [Engen] must meet the community and make peace and build trust. We also need an outcome of their ongoing investigation into the incident. Then we can make recommendations from that.”

Xasa said the purpose of the visit was to engage with the community as part of their oversight and because Engen’s report about the explosion had several gaps.  Affected families were booked into a bed-and-breakfast while others were moved to a development owned by the department of human settlements in Wentworth.

Years of neglect

According to Frank Alexander, a Wentworth community representative, years of negligence, poor maintenance and lack of safety measures are the reasons why six families were left homeless by the explosion.

“The explosion was long coming. We have been vocal about the poor condition of that refinery even prior to it exploding. For over decades it’s been in a poor state and a danger. This refinery is the cause of all the pollution, asthma, diabetes and all other related illnesses,” he said.

Alexander said Engen refused to engage the community on Friday and said they would rather engage with the portfolio committee, as they fear community members.

“This shows how disrespectful they are of us as the affected people. We tried to engage them either on their site or outside, but they refused. If anything, we should be afraid of them for the harm they bring to our lives and the environment here.
“It is very disturbing to learn that they view us in that manner. The number of asthmatic people is the highest here, more than any other place. They refuse to take any responsibility for what happened and say their investigation into this is still ongoing. This speaks to their arrogance, which we hope the whole country is now able to witness,” said Alexander.

Desmond D’Sa, an environmental activist and member of the South Durban Environmental Alliance, said that they are not disregarding what Engen did for the families by providing shelter. However, still, the company doesn’t show enough care or concern about their livelihoods and their community.

The site has been closed since December while the investigation continues. 

D’Sa said the entire Engen plant is rusty and has been a ticking time bomb. The refinery has been operating for 66 years, and, according to D’sa, Engen has plans to shut it down in 2023.

“After so many years milking our community, we are scared they are just running away and will not leave anything for the people of this community after that.

“Now the disregard they showed on Friday was very shocking. They didn’t report anything. They just came with an empty presentation that had nothing about what happened. No respect at all even for the portfolio committee itself. They appointed a facilitator here whom we don’t trust. This whole thing affected our health and broke down people’s homes, but nothing is being done or said by Engen.” 

Engen spokesperson Gavin Smith did not respond to requests for comment. 

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Chris Gilili
Chris Gilili is a climate and environmental journalist at the Mail & Guardian’s environmental unit, covering socioeconomic issues and general news. Previously, he was a fellow at amaBhungane, the centre for investigative journalism.

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