Industry under pressure to pay for pollution in South African suburb

Grassroots environmentalists in South Africa are using an academic study as a lever to demand compensation for deaths and payment for medical treatment needed for illness linked to industrial sites where they live and work.

Durban has a history of poorly-regulated heavy industry

Durban has a history of poorly-regulated heavy industry

The South Durban Basin is the industrial zone of Africa's busiest port and home to chemical plants, poorly regulated landfills and two oil refineries.

Its neighbours and workers have long maintained that their proximity to the heavy industry is bad for their health but until now have had little chance of compensation.

While the polluter pays principle is part of South Africa's legal framework, cases tying emissions to particular companies are rare due to lack of monitoring and data collection.

A study published by the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal may change that, however, as it offers scientific evidence that air quality in the basin is worse than elsewhere in the city and that the companies which run the industrial installations are, at least in part, responsible for this.

The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance is now using the study as the basis for a class action demanding free medical treatment for those affected by the pollution and compensation for the families of those who have died as a result of it.

Engen, the company which runs one of the two refineries the alliance alleges are responsible for the lions' share of the pollution, said in a statement that it welcomed the publication of the report.

It said that a greater understanding the cause and effect of pollution in the basin was valuable to everyone and pointed out that the study concluded that there had been significant improvements in air quality over the past ten years.

The company declined to comment on the possibility of a court case but suggested a solution to some of the concerns raised by the report might include establishing a database of Durban companies listing their potential environmental impact or a toxic emissions directory for the city, both of which would make it easier to trace particular pollutants to their source.

Sam Bond



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