"There's so much pollution in the air now that if it weren't for our lungs, there'd be no place to put it all." Robert Orben
Settlers Primary School in Austerville, South Durban holds the Guinness world record for the highest rates of asthma in a primary school anywhere in the world. It is located between the Engen and SAPREF oil refineries south of the port of Durban, South Africa. Engen is the second largest integrated oil company in southern Africa, after Sasol, and came about when Mobil sold its southern African operations to Gencor. SAPREF is a business combination of Shell and British Petroleum (these days BP markets itself as "Beyond Petroleum").
Recently I stood with community activist Desmond D'Sa on a section of the high vegetation-covered sand dune that forms the Bluff and observed an oil tanker discharge its high sulphur crude through a pipeline to one of these refineries. The tanker was docked at an elementary platform about 500 meters offshore that consists mainly of florescent orange markers to indicate connectors to the mouths of the pipes.
Below us, the open concrete canal that transects the dune and separates the refineries drains onto the beach and into the ocean. A nearby subsistence fisherman cast his hook into water that he knows produces contaminated fish. He also knows that he is denied access to this section of the beach. But, as D'Sa pointed out, "What choice does a poor man have who must feed his family? His father fished here too. But now their way of life is under assault." The cost of a fishing license has risen to the point that few subsistence fishermen can afford it. Moreover, fishermen are under tremendous pressure from business and government to move elsewhere ...yet they have never been presented a viable alternative to the livelihood they have practiced for generations.
This is a disorienting sight, one local residents refer to as "Beauty and the Beast": on one side of the dune glorious Indian Ocean waves break on the fine sand beach; on the other side at least two dozen smoke stacks of varying heights reach into the sky amid oil tank farms, the Mondi Paper mill, and other industries. A SAPREF smoke stack flared as we watched.
Engen and SAPREF refineries, built in the early 1950s, are at the end of their effective lifespans yet they soldier on operating at or below the minimum industrial standards. In 2005 Engen was fined for the first time ever for exceeding the permitted emissions levels. The cost? Ten thousand rand, the equivalent of approximately US $1,300. There have been ten explosions in the last two years. A month before my visit in early February 2010 the vast roof of an empty mercifully! Engen oil storage tank collapsed during the night.
Word is out that Chevron seeks to erect a refinery here too. And why not? Profits are excellent, the ANC-led government bends over to accommodate multinationals and despite the hype of South Africa's constitution as the "most liberal in the world" few of its environmental protections are enforced. Those that are enforced do not mess with big business in this big basin.
Meanwhile, about half a mile away in the valley, Settlers Primary School has an air quality monitoring station that measures benzene, sulphur dioxide, total reduced sulphur, hydrogen sulphur, CO2, and nitrous oxide. Yet, according to the Canadian Public Health Association's 2000 Position Paper, 250 different toxins are released into the air during flaring, including toluene, mercury, carbon di-sulphide, carbonyl sulphide, arsenic, chromium, methane, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH).