At first glance, the plastic buckets stacked in the corner of the
environmental NGO office look like any others.
But the containers are an unlikely weapon in one poor community's fight
against oil companies they say are responsible for widespread ill-health
caused by years of pollution.
The vessels are used by a network of local volunteers, known as the
Bucket Brigade, to gather air samples in neighbourhoods bordering oil
refineries, as part of a campaign to monitor and document air pollution
which they believe is coming from the plants.
In South Africa, as in many developing and newly industrialised
countries, legislation on air pollution has failed to keep pace with
So local residents, like many in poor communities around the globe, have
faced the problem of investigating their claim that industries on their
doorsteps are making them sick.
The small yet tenacious South Durban Community Environmental Alliance
(SDCEA) has become the first African grassroots group to take the science
into their own hands by taking their own air samples.
An internationally celebrated example of environmental justice in action,
the campaign has seen a once-despondent community play a major part in
lobbying the petroleum giants to change the way they process fuel.
Durban, a port city on South Africa's east coast, is home to almost three
More than 280,000 of them live in south Durban, crammed into an
industrial basin which houses the country's largest petrochemical hub as
well as dozens of other chemical and manufacturing plants.
The low-income suburbs of Merebank and Wentworth, inhabited by people of
mainly Indian and mixed-race descent, are literally surrounded by two
large oil refineries and a paper mill.
The residents were settled there in the 1960s, several years after the
petroleum plants were built, under apartheid segregation laws as a source
of cheap labour for the industries.
The refineries are operated by Engen, a South African and Malaysian-owned
company, and Sapref, a joint venture by British multinationals Shell and
The SDCEA was founded in 1993, and carried out an initial informal
survey of the community.
The group says this revealed a high incidence of cancer and respiratory
ailments among residents.
Benzene, a compound produced during the oil processing process, is a
known cancer-causing agent while sulphur dioxide (SOÂ²), another major
refinery by-product derived from burning oil, is a respiratory irritant
and has been shown to aggravate asthma.
Believing the refineries were to blame, the Danish-funded NGO began
mobilising people to take action against the oil corporations.
With many locals employed at the plants, residents were initially fearful
"Some didn't even want to talk to us," says chairman Desmond
D'Sa, a former petroleum plant worker who lives near the Engen
But, inspired by a personal endorsement of their struggle by then
president Nelson Mandela in the mid-to-late 1990s, hundreds now turn out
for regular anti-pollution demonstrations.
A decade ago, the oil companies had few dealings with their residential
neighbours and the relationship was poor.
Now both refineries have liaison committees where representatives from
both sides meet to thrash out environmental concerns.
"If you look at it historically, there's no question this area
has a pollution problem," says Wayne Hartmann, Engen refinery
"Are we part of that problem, historically? Yes, we use a lot of
fuel and we have SO2 emissions," he says.
But over the past 10 years, he says, the plant has reduced its emissions
from an average of 46 tonnes a day in 1998 to a daily 25 tonnes this
Mr Hartmann admits, though, that the refinery still occasionally exceeds
the stipulated guidelines for the maximum of SO2 which can be emitted in
a 10-minute peak period.
Sapref, however, disputes claims that it contributes to pollution, saying
it has spent more than $40m over the last 11 years on enhancing its
"We've fitted low nitrogen oxide burners on all furnaces to reduce
our emissions," said spokesperson Phumi Nhlapo.
"We've also switched from firing up their production processes with
heavy fuel oil to gas, to reduce smoke and SO2 emissions," he said.
A new sulphur recovery unit has reduced SO2 emissions by 46%, the company
These changes are thanks, in no small part, to the south Durban
communities' most successful weapon - the bucket air sampler.
It uses a small vacuum pump to suck air into a specialised clear plastic
bag inside the bucket.
A laboratory in the US analyses samples and returns results detailing
detected toxic gases such as sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides and benzene.
The data has then been used to lobby Engen and Sapref.
"We think they have a usefulness, as long as the samples are
captured, handled and transported properly. In fact, we use similar
containers for monitoring at the plant," said Engen's Mr Hartmann.
But, he said, air pollution levels can fluctuate fast and the samplers do
not record a pattern over time.
Despite recent improvements, however, the health problems are still
A 2002 medical study, carried out by Durban's Nelson Mandela School of
Medicine and a US university, found that an abnormally high 52% of
students and teachers at a primary school bordering the Engen plant
suffered from asthma.
It found that increases in air pollution tended to aggravate asthma
symptoms in children.
The petrol producers do not dispute the findings but argue that
researchers were unable to establish a causal link between air pollution
and the high prevalence of asthma among the school population.
For the community, the next step is to take legal action.
But, according to internationally recognised environmentalist Bobby Peek,
targeting the companies would be difficult as it would be near-impossible
to prove that illnesses suffered were caused by pollution coming from a
Mr Peek, who grew up beneath Engen's stacks, says the activists are now
considering taking action against the authorities.
"We are now looking at suing the government on constitutional
grounds, for failing to ensure our right to protection from a harmful
environment as stipulated in the constitution," he said.
A new batch of environmental laws, the National Air Quality
Management Act, has just been passed by the South African parliament to
replace outdated 1965 legislation with tighter controls and tougher
But it will be two years before the full framework to enforce these is in
place, Mr Peek said.
Martinus van Schalkwyk, the minister of environmental affairs and
tourism, visited the south Durban basin earlier this year and said there
were measures in place to improve the situation.
"I share the anger and frustration of this community. It is long
overdue," he told the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
The local authorities have also established a "Multi-Point
Plan" for the area. They say is a powerful model for tackling
pollution and point to a 40% reduction in sulphur dioxide emissions in
SOUTH AFRICA: Durban's Poor Fight For Clean Air
Tuesday, December 14, 2004
AMP Section Name:Environment