Engen’s crude oil haunts Durban community


Pralini Naidoo* gives an account of the Durban community’s struggle against Engen.

On 22 October 2011, amidst a flurry of placards, loud hailers and marshalls, the beleaguered residents began their march from Settler’s School to the main gates of the Engen Refinery. At least 100 people braved the blazing Durban heat to join the march. The heat is surpassed by only one thing – the ire of a community who have had enough.

Eleven-year-old Amina wears a white uniform – splattered with crude oil stains – is also on the march. Amina and about ten other children hold up placards as they lead the way in a protest march against a prominent oil company, Engen. The Engen Oil Refinery is based in the heart of Merebank and Wentworth, in the South Durban Basin.

Engen explosion

Just two weeks prior to the march, an explosive fire broke out sending a shower of crude oil into the air that rained down on school children from the neighbouring Settlers School. The children were rushed to the hospital for treatment. After this horrific incident many children complained of shortness of breath and itchy skin and eyes. Adding insult to injury, Engen attempted to compensate people for the effects of the explosion by offering the families of the victims a R30 voucher. As one mother muttered, “R30 won’t even buy me washing powder”.

A host of crimes

This isn’t the first time that neighbouring communities have felt the filthy presence of this company. Desmond D’Sa, coordinator of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, (SDCEA), wears a t-shirt listing a host of Engen crimes. Among these are employee fatalities, fires, leaks and violations of SO2 emission regulations. Amina’s mom points to her uniform – “I have soaked

the uniform in jik but the stains just won’t come out”. The very same substance made contact with the children’s skin. The parents in South Durban frequently seek medical attention for their children. Asthma, cancer and skin disorders are frighteningly commonplace in this neighbourhood. Marlene McClure, another activist on the march rattles off a list of cancer sufferers and fatalities in her immediate family. “My sister had skin cancer, my other sister had half her stomach removed from stomach cancer and my sister’s grandson, Tye, was 3 when he died of a brain tumour.”

Noxious fumes upset mothers

As I walk alongside the mothers and grandmothers, I feel a strong sense of solidarity towards these passionate womenfolk. Ten years ago I lived in Isipingo, close to SAFREF, another major refinery in South Durban. Noxious fumes were a constantly experienced. As a mother of two young children, I often eyed the billowing refinery with wary mistrust.

Maureen Manual, a 77 year old great-grandmother of 13, is marching for future generations. She has lived here most of her life, witnessing the pollution and the disregard with which the Malaysian owned Engen has conducted its business. The community has suffered because of the proximity of the refinery to their homes. But there has been little recompense. According to one resident, “They employ people from far away, our people here just get killed.”

Community’s demands

SDCEA and the Centre for Civil Society organised the march and put forward a memorandum to Engen.Some of the community’s demands include:

  • a 24 hour clinic at Wentworth Hospital,
  • a disaster management plan and
  • an independent investigation into the explosion of October 10 2011.

After a peaceful and well organised march to the main gates of Engen Refineries, the community handed over its demands. While the memorandum was signed by South African government officials, Engen refused to meet the delegation. While the people were disappointed they have not given up their fight, a battle for the basic well-being of all their families.

Engen responds

After several attempts to locate the Communications Manager for Engen Oil, Tania Landsberg this was Engen’s official position on the incident and the demands of the community.

“We are fully aware of the complaints about stains left behind on school clothes, washing hanged out to dry and home walls in Merebank following the small fire incident at the Refinery on October 10. The Refinery’s 24 hour call centre managed and logged all complaints. Insurance assessors were also engaged to help with the process. Of the 1 086 complaints received 749 have been assessed and are in the process of being resolved. It is expected that the process of resolving all complaints received will be completed by the end of the month. Engen sincerely regrets the inconvenience and concern caused by the fire that was brought under control in just over half an hour by the Refinery’s well-trained fire fighting team supported by City Emergency Services.

Engen is continually investing in doing business in a sustainable and responsible manner. We are in full compliance with all environmental legislation and will also adhere to any new requirements introduced. The company has reduced its sulphur dioxide emission by 77% since 1998 and is continuing to focus heavily on improving all areas of operation. The issue of an asthma clinic is a matter that must be raised with the regional health authority as Engen is not a licensed medical service provider. Engen, along with its industrial neighbours, has contributed to the process of upgrading conditions and amenities at existing health facilities in the South Basin and will consider further interventions based on the merit of the proposal and community needs.”

Minister orders clean up

Subsequent to the march, the Department of Agriculture MEC, Lydia Johnson, issued a warning to Engen Refineries, to either ‘clean up their act’ or face prosecution. However, to date, Engenhas not been in contact with the community. It is clear that the struggle must continue.

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