Picture: 123RF/Mr Narin Sapaisarn
Picture: 123RF/Mr Narin Sapaisarn

Dozens of environmental experts and activists are working around the clock to clear up about 1.6-million litres of fatty oils and caustic soda from a Pietermaritzburg plant of Willowton Oil  spilled into the Msunduzi River last week.

The spillage covers the rivers in the catchment areas for Umgeni Water, the water utility that provides services to many areas, including Pietermaritzburg, Durban and a number of towns on the South Coast and the Midlands.

On Tuesday the KwaZulu-Natal government, Umgeni Water authorities and local municipalities warned communities downstream not to use water from the local rivers in case of contamination and poisoning.

Pictures of thousands of fish, other species and plants had been posted on social media by Monday afternoon. Farmers and locals  said their cattle and other livestock have died after drinking from the Msunduzi and Umgeni rivers.

Willowton Oil, a big producer of cooking oil and other food products, said the spillage occurred after two tanks collapsed last Tuesday sending  a large amount of oil, fatty acids and caustic soda into the river.

"A vegetable oil storage tank collapsed and, in the process, brought down an adjacent tank. Two other tanks were slightly damaged. One contained sunflower oil and the other diluted caustic soda which is used in the manufacture of laundry soap," it said in a statement. 

The company refused to comment further on the disaster. But it said it had enlisted the services of spillage consultant companies SpillTech and Drizit to contain the damage.

"Unfortunately, some product managed to enter the Baynespruit tributary and then into the Msunduzi River,” Willowton said in the statement.

Nomusa Dube-Ncube, provincial MEC for economic development, tourism & environmental affairs, said her department had dispatched its disaster team which is working with other partners to monitor and mitigate the impact of the spill.

Bobby Peek of environmental organisation Ground Work said the number of fish and other animals that have died in the past few days indicate that neither government nor the company had a proper plan to deal with a disaster of this scale.

“There is no doubt that this is one of the biggest ecological disasters and it has been allowed to fester because government has failed the people. Government doesn’t have systems to deal with an environmental disaster such as this,” he said.

The Duzi Umngeni Conservation Trust, another environmental organisation, said it has evidence that cattle, goats and other animals belonging to  people living downstream had been affected.

Umgeni Water spokesperson Shami Harichunder said they were  watching the impact of the spillage carefully, but residents should not fear poisoning. 

“The water out of your tap is safe,” he said.