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Beauty and the Beast

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D'Sa, who lives in the area and is chairman of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), says an odd thing happens to the monitoring station when there is an industrial incident. "It seems to shut down right at the point of impact so our communities don't even get information about the release amounts of the pollutants that are measured."

From 2001 to 2007 SDCEA recorded over 28 serious accidents from spills to explosions and fires that led to multiple deaths. In May 2002, Settlers School recorded two incidents within two weeks that made children ill with toxic emissions. While many children suffer diarrhea and complain of pain in their chests and heads while at this school data shows that the children who live in outer neighborhoods have these symptoms only while at school. Despite fifty-two percent of the students and teachers diagnosed with chronic asthma and a history of children dead from leukemia industry representatives deny the illnesses come from industrial pollution.

The school's sick bay has a nebulizer and some oxygen masks but no trained nurse and teachers are not trained to administer emergency care. If there is a major industrial accident the principal must summons local ambulances to transport victims to hospital.

What is clear from the vantage point of the high sand dune is that the area is geographically constrained. The narrow industry-filled valley with one or two lane roads in various states of disrepair is hemmed in by the ocean and sand dune on one side and overcrowded, shanties and apartheid-era "townships,"and a major freeway on the other. Moreover, it sits upon more than a million liters of petroleum leaked into the porous soil from at least one of a network of seventeen aging underground pipelines. Several families in one neighborhood along Tara Road can no longer live in their homes. Here a covered swimming pool is filled with gasoline and I counted seven monitoring wells in the same small front yard. An Engen security guard lurked in the garden to discourage voyeurs like me and ensure passers-by refrain from smoking cigarettes. The lake in a nearby nature reserve has been drained and refilled by both Engen and SAPREF due to their spills and leaks; in 2001 SAPREF was responsible for the worst leak to date in South Durban. No one talks about how or if that contaminated lake water is treated... or where it goes if it is not treated.

While oil refineries thrive here they are not the only game in town. Mondi Paper mills sit on the banks of the canal. Residents blame the German owned multinational Hosaf Fibres and its outdated technologies for the asthma and wheezing their children experience when they play in the park next door. Then there is the walled off chemical storage facility that locals call Durban's Bhopal. The high wall surrounding that compound housing over 300 dangerous chemicals is referred to as the Security Barrier or the "Apartheid Wall" since it resembles the wall that surrounds the West Bank and Gaza; South Durban's wall is topped off with razor wire.

This region is a disaster awaiting a catastrophe and it has no publicized, easy to follow emergency plan.

Standing on the bluff that divides Beauty and the Beast I saw a luxury cruise liner in Durban harbor. Passengers from all over the world paid good money to see the world from that liner's deck. It is likely they will never see beyond the sea to another world where the suffering of young children ratchets up statistics and breaks all records for environmental disease.

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Susan Galleymore is the author of Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak about War and Terror, sharing the stories of people in Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and U.S. [Pluto Press 2009]. She is also host and producer of Raising Sand Radio (more...)
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