Briefing on Air Pollution in South Durban

Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment

13 March 2024
Chairperson: Mr P Modise (ANC)
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Meeting Summary


In a virtual meeting, the Portfolio Committee met with different stakeholders, namely, South Durban Community Environment Alliance (SDCEA), Engen refinery and eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality, regarding air pollution and its impact on the South Durban Basin community. There was a disjuncture between the three presentations. The Committee resolved the meeting by convening an emergency oversight meeting on 22 March 2024, where all the affected parties would engage in Kwa-Zulu Natal, Wentworth. The Portfolio Committee was disappointed by the presentations from Engen and eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality. Committee Members asked the Engen refinery to develop a new presentation that speaks to the interventions made to the community of South Durban post-fire hazards. eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality was asked to balance its air quality reports and data with the data from the communities at the ground level.

Meeting report

Opening Remarks

The Chairperson greeted and welcomed everyone to the meeting. 

Ms Rose Van Heerden, Head of the Health Unit, eThekwini Municipality, excused herself from the meeting explaining that she had a medical test at 10am.

South Durban Community Environment Alliance (SDCEA)

The presentation was given by Mr Bongani Mthembu, Air Quality and Health Project Office, SDCEA and Mr Bobby Peek, Executive Director and South Durban Community resident, GroundWorks.

The presentation recorded many instances when there was a fire from the Engen refinery:

  • 16 April 2006 - Large explosion shook Wentworth and Merebank residents, leaving one worker injured. The worker was burnt when asphalt fell on his arms as the fire was being extinguished.

Residents left and sought refuge at the entrance of the Clairwood Racecourse.

  • 19 November 2007 - Storage tank with 7 million litres of Petrol burned to the ground for over 58 hours. Residents evacuated to the Clairwood Racecourse
  • 04 December 2020 - Flats Burnt and over 300 houses were affected by the explosion, people traumatised, and a child suffered from burns.

The presentation went on to detail more about the Engen refinery, where the organisation received over 50 pollution/flaring complaints from the period December 2023 to January 2024 emanating from Engen. The organisation also detailed that there was no public participation when the Engen refinery was looking at licencing and permits. The organisation pleaded for more information from Engen for accountability and transparency, as the Constitution guarantees the right to information.  

(See presentation attached)

Engen Refinery

The presentation was delivered by Ms Shirley Moroka-Mosia, Chief Health, Safety, Environment, and Quality General Manager, Engen. The presentation focused on the status quo of the Engen refinery but not on the subject matter. Engen was requested to come back and deliver a new presentation that speaks on interventions implemented to mitigate the fire hazard experienced by the South Durban Community.

(See presentation attached)

eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality (ETH)

Mr Phathutshedzo Raphalalani, Air Quality Senior Manager, ETH, said the South Durban Industrial Basin is home to several industries located near residential areas due to historic poor town planning resulting in air pollution impacting communities negatively, causing untold health impacts. The Engen Refinery, located at 403-459 Tara Road, Wentworth, holds an Atmospheric Emissions License (AEL) and a Scheduled Activities permit issued by the Health Unit, eThekwini Municipality. The refinery has been offline since December 2020 and the site has been operating in a Terminal mode, with special projects as and when required. In the context of this discussion, Engen holds facilitated Joint Committee engagements on a quarterly or Ad hoc basis (based on urgent need). The Health Unit has agreed to collaborate with SDCEA in the South Durban Basin, to co-locate passive samples to ensure balanced coverage.

(See presentation attached)


Ms H Winkler (DA) asked the Department for the outcome of the multi-stakeholder forum on air pollution held in 2019. Was it a successful platform? What positive resolution arose from that platform? Were issues like just-transition discussed on the platform? She asked eThekwini Metro municipality how reliable the air quality monitoring stations are. Are all the stations working at present? What is the efficacy of the data? Is the data readily available to the public? If not, how will you ensure that the monitoring of air stations are working at full capacity? She asked the municipality to comment on the issues affecting the South Durban Community beyond air pollution, such as sewage problems and increasing unemployment.

Mr N Singh (IFP) told the Committee that he had been involved with the process since 1998, when he was a Member of the Executive Council (MEC) and brought the matters affecting the South Durban Community to the attention of the national Minister and the two parties came up with a multipoint plan. He asked to what extent the multipoint plan has been implemented. How often do the forums created during the multipoint plan meet? He asked Engen if it has given any community organisation and stakeholders a platform to share ideas with it to meet a desirable solution. He requested that Engen include the SDCEA and GroundWork in its engagements. Does Engen and the eThekwini municipality have separate honest engagements? eThekwini municipality is Constitutionally responsible for air pollution standards, quality, risk, and mitigation in the area.

Mr N Capa (ANC) asked if the South African Petroleum Retailers Association (SAPIA) in south Durban has any voluntary or mandatory contribution to the community and the municipality. Is there any partnership between Engen and other learning institutions, like offering research scholarships to improve the air quality work? How are the sugarcane producers’ daily activities affected?

Ms S Mbatha (ANC) said she appreciates that eThekwini Municipality has an air quality officer. However, does it have an environmental management inspector (EMI) situated within the municipality? How is it sampling air pollution within Engen and neighbouring communities considering that the plant is poorly zoned? The Engen is close to a school, such that gases can be inhaled from the school. How will the municipality deal with the poorly zoned Engen plant? How many people and damaged houses were reported to the compensation commissioner? Was it recorded, and did occupational health specialists give a first and second incident report to the compensation commissioner for future purposes? If it has not been done, the people will not be compensated in the future in case of injury. Can the Committee follow up on the compensation made by Engen? Were the flats refurbished? What happened to the injured children? How is the community affected going to benefit from Engen? How is eThekwini facilitating this compensation process?

Ms T Mchunu (ANC) said the presentation from Engen looks similar to the presentation delivered during an oversight by the Portfolio Committee sometime in the past years. She also asked Engen to report on its negative impacts on the community. How is Engen planning to control the pollution? She asked eThekwini municipality to balance the air quality report with the status quo on the ground, because the non-profit organisations are presenting different results. How does Engen plan to deal with health issues in the South Durban Basin community? How can the Committee make stakeholder engagements more effective from the three presenters and the community at large?

The Chairperson thought Engen and eThekwini municipality would have aligned their presentations according to the requests made by the SDCEA. He said there is a clear disjuncture between the three presentations. He asked eThekwini how effective the 16 ambient air monitoring stations are. Can the presenters account for the meetings they had amongst each other? Has Engen visited the 300 affected households? Has eThekwini municipality engaged with these communities?


Mr Desmond D'Sa, Office Coordinator, SDCEA, said the SDCEA had raised issues about Engen and its lack of engagement with the community during an oversight meeting with the Portfolio Committee. The block of flats was refurbished by the Department of Human Settlement, Kwa-Zulu Natal. Engen only paid for some burnt furniture. The occupants of the damaged houses were not visited by Engen, but by consultants. Numerous people were not visited or received any health assessments, treatment, and counselling. He said in October 2023, Mr Raphalalani issued a letter to Engen, allowing it to pollute air without the community’s knowledge. He said that Mr Raphalalani knew about the SDCEA but did not bother to consult the South Durban Community. He said it wrote a letter to ask eThekwini municipality who gave them permission to pollute. He said eThekwini Municipality and Engen are omitting high benzene levels and as a result, there are cancer deaths that are killing the communities, from their reports. There has been no assessment made. “We have all the letters as proofs to show to the Portfolio Committee”. Engen did not have any communication with the community regarding air pollution, just transition themes. Mr D’Sa told the Committee that he called Engen to face and engage the community as directed by the Minister of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE). He asked the national government to oversee the local government regarding issues on the ground and asked the Engen refinery to abide by the laws of the country, without being treated differently by the local authorities.

Mr Mthembu (SDCEA) said eThekwini municipality is presenting only positive things about Engen and expressed that Mr Raphalalani is not compliant as an official for safeguarding the health of the communities’ by ensuring that industries comply with the air monitoring standards. He said he had never come across any official taking samples with their sophisticated air quality monitoring systems. Some of the proclaimed sophisticated air quality monitoring stations (approximately five) were destroyed during the flooding season. However, eThekwini municipality did not mention that in their slides, which leads to a data gap. He agreed with Ms Mchunu that the presentation was recycled, and he is happy that the Portfolio Committee is noting that. He said Engen never engaged SDCEA but engaged people who want to eat crumbs from its tables. He said that the community needs social investments not through scholarships, considering Engen is making millions from a residential zone. “It is disheartening to see officials that do not carry the wellbeing of the communities they serve at heart”. He said that Engen received many memorandums through picketing but opted not to respond to those memorandums.

Ms Moroka-Mosia (Engen) told the Committee that Engen had engaged with the community on 9 February 2024 and the next one will be scheduled sometime in March 2024. After the December fire, there was a directive to get an independent facilitator to assist in forming a community engagement for a year and half which resulted in a drafting of the Terms of References of JC, of which SDCEA and GroundWork were invited, however the SDCEA and GroundWork did not honour the invites to join the community. She said Engen wants to engage all the interested and affected parties in the same forum, not individually. She said the four people who were anxious and running from the fire were hospitalised and released the same day, because they did not sustain any injuries relating to the 4 December fire. The incident was reported to the Department of Labour and the claims were managed and facilitated by independent insurance assessors and consultants. An independent process was applied to support the residents of Block 10 in the form of household goods, financial support, and health-related interventions. Engen appointed different health (including mental) specialists to assess Block 10 residents. She stressed that Engen prides itself on its commitment to complying with all national laws. eThekwini municipality is responsible for ambient air quality standards to determine harmful and non-harmful air in accordance with the constituents. The standards look at the cumulative data of all the industries, including households, of which the South Durban Community does not exceed otherwise, it would have been declared as a priority area because its air quality would have been compromised. Engen has been compliant with minimum emission standards for many years. Communications were sent in terms of pamphlets and newspapers to inform the community that Engen is going to start the Kerosene Hydrotreater Unit (KHT) in December. She said a flare in the petroleum industry is there to ensure the safety of a facilitator. The flare is compulsory because it is a safety control device and an environmental control tool meant to burn excess hydrocarbon during the upset conditions. The energy used for a KHT is a methane-rich gas with insignificant emissions.

Mr Raphalalani (ETH) confirmed that eThekwini municipality has 16 ambient air monitoring stations, 15 stationary and one mobile. Four of the 15 stations are offline, and one was affected by floods. The municipality has managed to secure a new location, and it will be working on the electrical connection soon. Other stations were affected by criminality; therefore, some stations had to be relocated to a proper location to obtain comprehensive data. The municipality secured funds through the Renewal of the eThekwini Ambient Air Monitory project for three years to repair and replace their old and malfunctioning stations. Loadshedding also affects the stations through tripping which burns the stations. The stations report live to the South African Air Quality Information System for the public and students conducting research. He said he cannot speak on sewage issues because that is not his constituency. He confirmed that he had received his Environmental Management Inspectorate (EMI) grade one designation in February 2024 to issue notices on compliance and enforcement. The South African Petroleum Industry Association (SAPIA) has invested millions of rands towards communities through Project Vulindlela to try to mitigate air pollution. The municipality is in the process of developing a biomass inventory, which will include all sugar cane producers within the city. The municipality ran out of passive sample surplus, and it was brought up in one of the stakeholders’ meetings. The municipality indicated that it is currently procuring new passive sample to be collated within Engen for passive sampling monitoring. The municipality issues all the atmospheric emissions licenses to various industries and requires all the facilities to submit annual emissions reports with all greenhouse gas inventories. The reports aid the municipality in assessing the progress of a just energy transition. The municipality is developing a policy to initiate a move from its reliance on coal to greener energy. The municipality is calling all the facilities within eThekwini to move into greener technology before the policy becomes compulsory in 2030. “During the Engen explosion, the health unit received a call and arrived on site at approximately 2’0 clock. The surrounding areas were surveyed for health impacts created by fires of such nature. Cost and communication were maintained within the health unit and the community. The ambient air quality was monitored to check the trends. Watercourses were inspected and were contained within the side with no impact. There was no elevated concentration of benzene”. Engen was given a notice by the municipality to (a) appoint an external engineer consultant to conduct a root cause analysis and submit a report on integrated management of tanks, pipelines and associated infrastructures such as valves, (b) conduct an atmospheric report in terms of Section 30 and (c) appointing a suitably qualified toxicologist to conduct taxological assessments to determine exposure and potential health risks for workers and surrounding communities. The municipality took the matter to court, and it was rolled out. Mr Raphalalani said it’s upon his powers as an air quality specialist and EMI to serve the communities of eThekwini while safeguarding human health and the environment. He said if there was no compliance from Engen, he would not hesitate to issue a notice as he has done with SAPIA before.

Mr Jerome Schoonberg, member of the Wentworth Development Forum and the SDCEA, said that the Community-Engen Joint Committee (JC) from Engen has never been to the communities’ consultations. Engen is well aware of the issues and the communities protesting against the JC as it does not represent the voices of the affected communities. He said Engen laid charges against four community members protesting outside Engen’s premises and the case is still in High Court. “If we are open and transparent about consultations, why do we still have a legal process going on”. He asked if the patrons who own Engen have a hidden agenda in terms of international law. If the precedence is set here in South Africa and is being protested on, does it have precedence in another country? He said that eThekwini municipality copied and pasted correspondence from Engen to consult the JC when asked for an engagement. “Engen is not a regulatory body; the city is the custodian of regulations. We are the citizens of the city. The city must respond to us if we tell them Engen is infringing on the rights of the citizens of the city”.

The Chairperson said that he did not wish for the Members to have an extensive dialogue and he allowed the Members of the Committee to ask final questions.

Follow up discussion

Mr Singh said the Committee must facilitate inclusive communication where all the parties commence and engage on the issues affecting the community. He said eThekwini municipality is not taking care of the citizens of South Durban Basin. Why did it allow the stations to deteriorate? Can the Committee ask the Minister, Head of Environment in KZN and Mayor of eThekwini to intervene and engage through a forum? He says he does not understand why the SDCEA has been excluded from the Engen meetings, considering that the body has been representing the community for ages.

Ms Mbatha said that she is disappointed with both Engen and the eThekwini municipality on how they dealt with the issues and compensations. She said that Engen is responsible for conducting follow-ups with the affected communities. She said that the City’s EMI gave a false and incomplete report which was exposed by the SDCEA. She said eThekwini is failing the community and is worried that there was no medical examination for the community. She said that if she was a community member she would take both Engen and eThekwini municipality to court with very good legal representation. She requested the national government to intervene, including the Department of Health and said that Engen must be forced to fix houses affected by the fire hazard.

Ms Mchunu supported a call for the Minister to intervene and deal with this matter in collaboration with the Portfolio Committee and the affected heads of the provinces and the city. She asked Engen why it did not present the challenges faced by the community and how it is addressing those challenges. Can Engen be honest and give the Minister an honest report on what is happening on the ground? She requested the municipality to look at the zoning of the area and asked if it was a residential or industrial zone before. Was it rezoned? What are the spatial plans to separate the two? She stressed that responses are very crucial for the Portfolio Committee to reach a decision. She requested that the Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs – KwaZulu Natal be forced to convene a stakeholder meeting. She told Engen to go and prepare a different presentation to the Portfolio Committee so that a fair decision could be reached.

The Chairperson lobbied the Portfolio Committee to fly themselves to Wentworth on 22 March 2024. He emphasised that the Committee wants to rule out the matter after it has engaged all relevant stakeholders. He asked Engen to prepare a report on interventions provided to the community after the explosions. He concluded that the Portfolio Committee would make an inclusive decision and protect the environment by complying with the National Environmental Management and Air Quality Acts.

Mr Singh added that the DG and the Deputy Minister of the DFFE need to be invited.

The Portfolio Committee agreed with the Chairperson.

Ms Moroka-Mosia (Engen) said the presentation was to demonstrate trends from previous years until 2023. The format may be the same, but the data is new. She said that the young ladies shown in the presentation are 2023 matriculants. She said Engen has a duty to keep its employees safe at all times and to protect its assets. The interdicted individuals were throwing stones at the Engen trucks and also threatened the employees. She said it is unfortunate that the JC did not consult another affected stakeholder, an issue that will be discussed in the next meeting. She concluded that Engen always complies with the rules and standards of the countries where it operates. In instances where there are no laws, Engen borrows from developed countries. Engen believes in science-based information and decision-making.

The meeting was adjourned.


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