In the two years since the riots, looting, and the warehouse fire that occurred
at UPL’s Cornubia facility, we have led extensive efforts to communicate
clearly and transparently about the work we have been leading with local
authorities, the communities surrounding Cornubia, scientific experts, and
In the two years since the riots, looting, and the warehouse fire that occurred at UPL’s Cornubia facility, we have led extensive efforts to communicate clearly and transparently about the work we have been leading with local authorities, the communities surrounding Cornubia, scientific experts, and environmental specialists.
This updated edition of our “Road to Recovery” report describes the significant and positive progress on the rehabilitation of the environment affected by the fire at Cornubia, details our understanding of the immediate and longer-term impact to wider health issues, and maintains our commitment to making reports and evaluation of the issues available.
The Rehabilitation Action Plan (RAP) has received approval from the authorities in August of 2023 after being submitted in November of 2022. This approval is a crucial step and will inform the way forward for many aspects of work across the system. Extensive monitoring and evaluation work is ongoing to assess the ongoing reduction of substances related to the spill, as well as the contribution of external pressures including high levels of sewage from local communities, and discussions are underway between experts and authorities to finalise all rehabilitation plans for the entire system.
Remediation, Rehabilitation, and Monitoring Work – Summary and Impact
The majority of substances related to the spill (both pesticides and metals) are no longer present in the system or are at such low concentrations they cannot be quantified by laboratory testing.
Gallery – Key Examples:
Vegetation in Tributary – September 2023
Routine monthly sampling work has continued in the tributary section of the impacted system, and testing shows an overall significant recovery across the impacted area since the spill event.
Tadpoles Returning to Confluence – September 2023
Signs of natural life returning to the tributary and further down to the confluence with the Ohlanga river are being observed, and as recently as September 2023 saw tadpoles present in significant numbers throughout the tributary – a strong sign of recovery.
View along Tributary – September 2023
Monitoring and sampling for substances associated with the spill along the tributary show continued and very significant improvement and recovery. Conditions in the tributary have improved, reflecting the continued decline and elimination of spill substance in the system overall.
Soil Trials with Tomatoes
Trials to assess the effects of natural degradation in soils affected by the spill have been led with tomato, pepper, radish, and Swiss chard. Vegetables grown in untreated soil collected from the upstream portion of the confluence wetland, have shown no signs of stress after 3 weeks.
There has been significant progress in terms of remediation work across most of the impacted system. Results from monthly sampling and testing show strong progress in terms of the continued overall decline in substances related to the spill across the system. In fact, many of these substances are now no longer present at all, and for those which are still detectable, in the majority of cases the concentrations are so low that they cannot be quantified by laboratory testing. This indicates the strength of the work which has been done by the broader independent expert team over the past two years to achieve this milestone.
Nonetheless, some challenges remain, many of which are faced from external pressures not related to the initial arson attack and spill or within the control of the independent expert team or UPL. Most critically the high levels of sewage from surrounding communities are impeding the remediation and rehabilitation efforts in these areas. There are at least three sources which have impacted the system, including from a commercial area in Cornubia, a pump and other infrastructure near Blackburn community and the Umhlanga Wastewater Treatment Works.
Detailed Summary of Containment, Clean-Up, and Rehabilitation
1. Maintenance of Infrastructure
While the vast majority of clean up and containment work was completed in the weeks and months following the July 2021 arson attack on the leased UPL warehouse, work is ongoing and emphasis has now shifted to the maintenance of containment, capture and remediation systems and infrastructure. Maintenance work focusses on:
- The Pollution Control Dam (PCD) which captures runoff from the warehouse site when there is rain, along with ponds on the warehouse platform which capture rainwater.
- Outlet areas, which are runoff containment areas in and around the warehouse site.
- Signage around the site.
- Ongoing pumping and removal of water – for appropriate disposal – from the scavenger wells in the tributary and lower wetland.
- Revegetation work which has already been trialled across the system (monitoring, watering, etc.)
2. Rehabilitation and Remediation
Methods trialled early on (including scavenger wells, and vegetation planting), to both identify and remediate areas of ongoing concern, have shown significant success since the last Road to Recovery report.
Samples of soil, sediment, and water show that for any chemicals which can still be found, none are at concentrations above the RISC screening levels and those which are detected are at levels which are mostly unquantifiable through laboratory analysis.
Investigations and planning are underway to roll out some of these interventions in other areas of the system, including:
a) PCD Level Monitoring App: In addition to the maintenance work on containment and clean up infrastructure, a customised app was developed toward the end of 2022 which allows for daily monitoring of PCD levels. This allows the independent expert team (and all relevant stakeholders, including the authorities) to assess and manage associated risks related to rainfall predictions and modelled dam volumes.
b) PCD Water Treatment Plant: In November and December of 2022 an effluent treatment plant (which utilises ozone, ultraviolet light and activated carbon) was constructed and commissioned next to the PCD. The plant’s purpose is to treat any remaining contaminants in the water from the PCD to make it completely safe. Extensive testing, both chemically and ecotoxicologically, have shown the efficacy of this treatment process.
c) Tributary and Freshwater System: Routine monthly sampling work has continued in the tributary section of the impacted system, and testing shows an overall significant recovery across the impacted area since the spill event. However, sampling and testing has unfortunately picked up chemical contamination at one point (a control test site which is used for comparative analysis with the area impacted by the spill) which, because of its location and the composition of contamination, is believed to be emanating from sewage pollution in the tributary catchment area – specifically further upstream. Unfortunately, this contamination has also impacted the sediment at the site. E. coli monitoring at this site exhibits extremely high levels of the bacteria because of the sewage contamination. Because this site is part of the tributary catchment area, the sewage contamination, which periodically reoccurs continues to affect the lower portions of the system as organic matter degrades.
d) Estuary and Beach: Monthly sampling and monitoring have continued along the estuary and marine environment. Since the initial report on the Road to Recovery the estuary and marine environment have been impacted by sewage spills. Organic matter from this sewage pollution is still being broken down in the estuary. Unfortunately, the municipal pump station which services the Blackburn community breaks down frequently which means sewage flows into the system, affecting the estuary as well as the marine environment (when the mouth is open). At the beginning of September 2023 there were four such leaks spilling into the system from the community. The presence of sewage in this part of the system, as well as the spill noted in the tributary catchment area, will continue to negatively impact the health of the system. Fortunately, monitoring and sampling for metals shows that these have continued to drop overall. In terms of pesticides, the overall decrease in concentration has continued and, while lab testing has been able to detect some, most of these are now at such a low level that they cannot be quantified or again, are not present at all. The water from beach testing sites has for several months now shown a non-toxic result during toxicity testing.
e) Wildlife: Monitoring of wildlife at the beach area shows that the positive outcome of the toxicity tests is borne out in real life. Ghost crabs have not only returned to the beach area but have been recorded in densities which are higher than on neighbouring beaches. There are signs of further recovery – an initial analysis of biological sampling of the system in June 2023 shows the presence of three or more species of polychaetes (marine bristle worms) in sediment which is a positive sign of the recovery of natural life. There are also currently tadpoles present in significant numbers throughout the tributary – an encouraging sign of recovery.
f) Scavenger Wells: The scavenger wells were installed in parts of the system during 2022 in areas of continued concern to remove residues from the spill that may have remained in the river/tributary banks (particularly at points where the collection dams were erected to collect and pump most of the initial spill). The results of monitoring and sampling from the water in these wells since they were employed shows they are working well as a method of remediation in terms of flushing and collecting any persistent residues.
g) Revegetation Work: In 2022 the expert team began soil remediation work and trialling grass sods in numerous areas as part of efforts to both revegetate the areas impacted by the spill and to identify areas which may still be of concern (by noting those areas where the sods did not perform well). The majority of the sites which have been planted are showing significant success – with grasses not only surviving but spreading well. There have been further trials for revegetation since then which has also included skills transfer to local community members. This process utilises labour from this community who are trained by the specialist rehabilitation team in the planting of vegetation, and aspects of the soil work associated with the trials. This work has included preparation of seed beds and trial holes for woody plants. These holes will be left open for a period to allow them to “breathe” and are then planted.
Another continuing aspect of this work has been the germination of wetland plant seeds and planting of wetland plant plugs, or sods, along the tributary. Phragmites (reed) seed head planting began in areas of the system in July 2023. The local team have been important for these trials. Positively, vegetation is establishing on the elevated portions throughout the wetland and, along with the grass sods, the wetland plant sods are continuing to establish down the tributary which is a further positive sign. Plant species that are establishing include Typha capensis (known as bullrush), Isolepis (known as vleigras in Afrikaans) (probably prolifera) Cyperus dives and C. textilis (known as rushes) as well as Phragmites (known as reeds).
Indigenous Fig and Erythrina truncheons (sections of hardwood from a plant which can root and propagate) have been planted along the tributary banks. Currently the majority are growing and will be monitored to see if residue effects are detected on the plants as they root deeper.
Another planting trial occurred in areas of sugar cane cultivation to assess if there were any areas of concern. Oats was planted in these areas, and positively, the majority grew well. Small areas of stress were identified and trial treatment with microbes, which boost and promote soil health, has been carried out on these areas.
h) Soil and Plant Trials: Soil remediation work has included soil turning (this aerates the soil and exposes it to the light), and new topsoil has also been added in places. Again, revegetation was used as measure of success for these remediation activities with grass seeds being germinated in some of these areas. Vegetation plugs have also been trialled, and both revegetation trials are showing success.
Testing how particularly sensitive plants grow in untreated and treated soil is another avenue of the vegetation trials. A series of what has been termed ‘pot trials’ have taken place, with the most recent occurring in June and July of 2023. Plant plugs are grown in pots, which gives the trial its name, which contain treated and untreated soil samples. Each trial period runs for 4 to 6 weeks. Six trial periods have been completed to date.
These trials assess the effects of natural degradation (untreated soil), microbes, organics (like compost), soil fertility and various combinations thereof on plant plugs. Tomato plugs in combination with capsicum (pepper) plugs, indigenous plant seeds and commercial plant seeds (radish and Swiss chard) are used in the trials. Plugs of Strelitzia, Juncus and Agapanthus have been also incorporated into the trials. Tomatoes were grown in untreated soil collected from the upstream portion of the confluence wetland. Significantly, these plants have shown no signs of stress after three weeks.
Human Health Assessment Work
There is no spill related risk to human health in the marine environment exclusion zone.
A consolidated Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA) Inhalation Report, with investigation and monitoring recommendations was compiled by a HHRA team of human health, epidemiological and toxicological specialists and submitted to the Health Cohort on 7 November 2022. The Health Cohort approved that report on the 31st March 2023 and instructed UPL to undertake specified actions arising from it.
UPL’s specialist team advised UPL that the instructions varied from their recommendations and were either not possible or would not achieve any meaningful results. They compiled a response document and in view of the nature and extent of their concerns, UPL has referred the issue to an independent British specialist for peer review. Once finalised, the HHRA investigation and monitoring actions (additional to the actions already taken) will get underway. Since the first Road to Recovery feedback report, encouragingly, it continues to appear from both the testing of first responders and on-site personnel, as well as those few people who attended the specially commissioned clinic, that there is very little by way of serious health impacts attributable to either the fire or the spill.
a) Sewage pollution: Unfortunately, sewage contamination has impacted the Ohlanga catchment over a significant period. The contamination issues caused by the sewage spills, which have been partially addressed, will continue to adversely impact UPL’s remediation efforts. In addition, persistent pump failures in the Blackburn community mean that there are still active sewage spills entering the lower half (estuary) portion of the system.
b) Uncontrolled dumping: Uncontrolled dumping by unknown individuals has continued to occur in the system. This introduces new pollution which continues to adversely affect the remediation and rehabilitation efforts.
c) Sand mining: Similarly, sand mining at the end of the tributary creates significant disturbance and sedimentation further downstream, hampering remediation and rehabilitation efforts.
d) Long response times from stakeholders: Much of the work going forward is contained in the Rehabilitation Action Plan which outlines the plans for the system’s overall rehabilitation. Unfortunately, feedback and approval on this plan has been characterised by lengthy wait periods. This has delayed the commencement of full rehabilitation in the tributary.
The Rehabilitation Action Plan (RAP) has received approval from the authorities in August of 2023 after being submitted in November of 2022. This approval is a crucial step and will inform the way forward for many aspects of work across the system.
The team is currently investigating the potential to use further scavenger wells in other points in the system. The expert team has completed drilling boreholes for a geohydrological model which will now be worked on.
A full review of all data after sampling, which was completed in July/early August 2023, will allow an update of the Estuary Health Index as well as a consolidation of results from all the indices chosen to assess coastal health. This will determine the way forward for this part of the system.
The team of independent experts is continuing to engage the authorities regarding the proposed ‘end point’ for the system. This essentially means that discussions underway between the experts and authorities to finalise all rehabilitation plans for the entire system with timelines.