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Tuesday Oct 16, 2012

Residents move back to decontaminated Durban properties 11 years later

Residents of Wentworth in Durban noticed a noxious smell in their neighbourhood 11 years ago.

It was seeping into their homes from a stormwater drain and, to cut a long story short, it turned out that more than a million litres of petrol had leaked underneath several homes from a rusty underground pipeline owned by the Sapref (Shell/BP) petrol refinery.

Tests later showed that some homes in the area around Angelier Road and Tambotie Street were being exposed to benzene levels which could increase their risk of getting cancer and the occupants of six homes were advised to abandon their houses as a health precaution.

Now, more than 11 years later, the petrol refinery has sucked up or burned more than 1.45 million litres of petrol and 190 million litres of polluted groundwater, and Sapref is getting ready to decommission a multi-million fuel recovery operation and environmental remediation project which involved digging more than 1 300 fuel recovery wells to suck up the leaked petrol.

Sapref project manager Poovan Nadar told The Mercury yesterday that the eThekwini municipality and government environment authorities were satisfied that the contaminated site had been "rehabilitated" according to agreed guidelines and that Sapref was getting ready to leave the site and remove the machinery and equipment used to recover the fuel.

Three of the six home-owners had already moved back into their abandoned houses, while the remaining three families had left forever.

Their houses were bought by Sapref and will probably be converted into an orphanage, while the main contaminated site may be taken over as a nature reserve by the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife conservation agency.

Sapref project engineer Reimar Fitschen said most of the liquid fuel and vapour had been sucked up from the soil and groundwater by June 2006.

Since then, Sapref consultants had been monitoring the soil and groundwater, but the company was now satisfied that any remaining traces of poisonous fuel would "degrade naturally" and that it was safe for people to live in the area without fearing for their health.

Fitschen acknowledged that there were still tiny traces of toxic petroleum vapour underground to a depth of about five metres (at a level of a few parts per billion), but the only possible remaining health risks were if residents dug water holes in the residential area to drink or to water their vegetables.

Sapref said it would continue to monitor the main 2.5ha contamination site until around 2030, but the refinery hoped to remove all remaining remediation equipment from the site before the end of next year.

Sapref officials yesterday refused to disclose how much the clean-up operation cost, but fuel industry sources have suggested the final tab for the decade-long clean-up could be as much as R91 million.

The Mercury

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