Cape oil refinery faces closure over foul air : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

September 8, 2000

Cape oil refinery faces closure over foul air

A United States company is spewing a cocktail of lethal chemicals into the Cape air. -

PAUL KIRK reports.

he government has threatened to shut down the Caltex refinery in Cape Town after air sampling revealed the air in the city's Table View area is among the most heavily polluted in the world.

Among the lethal chemicals that a United States laboratory has found in the air is a petrol additive called MTBE - a potent carcinogen or cancer-causing agent banned in the US. The Caltex refinery, the only possible source of the chemical, is owned by Chevron - an American oil company that ironically operates some of the world's cleanest refineries in its home country.

The same US laboratory recently conducted similar tests on the air in Durban and Sasolburg. The levels of carbon disulfide in the Cape air were found to be seven times higher than in Sasolburg, where pollution levels are exceptionally high.

Carbon disulfide attacks the lungs, causing respiratory problems and difficulty in breathing. It also attacks the reproductive system.

Toulene was found in twice the concentration as the Durban sample. Toulene is a known cause of cancer and attacks bone marrow. Tetrachloroethane was found in the Cape Town air sample - and nowhere else. This chemical causes massive liver damage. Also found exclusively in Cape Town was 2- Hexanone - this chemical causes irreparable damage to the central nervous system.

Table View Residents' Association chair Andy Birkinshaw said the findings were ironic given the recent announcement made on early-morning television by the manager of the refinery, who claimed fugitive emissions from the plant posed no health risk.

RELATED ARTICLES Clouds of death over Sasolburg August 25, 2000 Durban's air a 'toxic soup' June 28, 2000

TALK TO US Mail the editor Birkinshaw said that while industry often argued that the Cape Town winds blew the pollution out to sea, this was not in fact the case. Said Birkinshaw: "The winds do not blow all year and on every day. The wind often simply moves the pollution around the city."

He said that his association had been attempting to have Caltex reduce pollution since 1994 - without success. "In 1994 the then manager of the refinery, Mike Rademeyer, signed an undertaking that emissions would be reduced by 80%. Caltex has since reneged on this agreement and so we have laid a complaint with the Human Rights Commission."

The commission has confirmed that an investigation is under way into air pollution, but declined to comment further.

Speaking at the public meeting where the results were made known, Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Joyce Mabudafasi said: "There will be zero tolerance for polluters once new legislation is in place. Oil companies make massive profits while they continue to pollute. They must invest in the health of the nation. We will clamp down on those who do not comply. We will withdraw permits."

The pollution findings were made after a Durban-based NGO, Groundwork, organised for air to be tested in US laboratories. The US experts were flown to South Africa by the South African Exchange Programme on Environmental Justice, an NGO run by South Africans based in Boston.

The air was collected using American-built devices and flown to Los Angeles for testing. Groundwork director Bobby Peek reiterated the minister's words by claiming pollution from transnational companies was bankrupting South Africa's health care system while making foreign companies millions.

There are no laboratories in South Africa certified by the South African Bureau of Standards to test air pollution.

Said Peek: "The poor are the victims of pollution and they have to seek health care from the state. The polluters who cause the illness do not contribute one penny to the Ministry of Health, but save millions by ignoring the most basic environmental issues."

Each air test costs R5 000. Birkinshaw said he did not see why the community itself had to pay for the air monitoring of the refinery, but vowed to take another air sample as soon as funds are available.

"Our lives are impacted daily by this toxic pollution. It is time that big industry realises we will not take any more. We will be watching them."

Refinery manager Paul Buley said he would see the report before commenting. The main chemicals in the air at the three sites tested by the US lab are:

Sasolburg: Benzene, acetone, toulene, carbon tetraChloride, xylenes and styrene. Cape Town: Acetone, carbon disulfide, chloromethane, benzene, 2-hexanone, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethane. Durban: Toulene, methylene chloride, benzene, acetone, carbon disulfide. At the two coastal sites of air pollution wind may blow the lethal chemicals out to sea on certain days - but the local communities have no guarantee of this.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 08, 2000

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