Dundee cyanide water pollution

By Michelle Simon - 23 Apr 2012 8:35:0 GMT
Dundee cyanide water pollution

Cyanide pollution in river system; Cattle drink at a watering hole image via Shutterstock

One of the worst planning decisions by local authorities around the world is the siting of chemical and highly polluting industries on or near water resources, presenting high risks to the environment and humans residing downstream. All history has shown is that 'Murphy's Law' is a toxic reality as incidents of leaks, spills, effluent releases (legal and illegal) and emissions abound.

In the town of Newcastle, nestled in the rural landscape of the northwestern low lying mountains and hills in province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, this very issue of unacceptable environmental planning, auditing and monitoring, and industry's self-regulation was highlighted. On the 16th February 2012, the local livestock sauntered over to the their daily watering hole to quench their thirst after roaming in the hot sub-tropical temperatures in summer. Within minutes cows at the watering hole keeled over, dying within minutes. They stood no chance against the cyanide leaked into a tributary of the Ngagane River. Upon the river's floodplain reside companies utilising this highly fatal chemical.

Karbochem, a synthetic rubber manufacturer, blamed it on mechanical failure on the plant's site, which it claims to share with another company responsible for the use of cyanide. The Ngagane River is a primary tributary to the Buffalo River, these surface water bodies supply the towns in the region with drinking water from the formal potable water to the informal water used directly from the river by poor villagers. Warnings were issued, within the day of the incident to residents along the water-systems from the tributary streams to the Ngagane River to the Buffalo River, not to drink, play, swim, water cattle or utilise river water for any purpose. Karbochem have offered to compensate the farmers for the livestock loss estimated at 12 cows.

Karbochem admitted culpability, attributing the leak to failed equipment resulting in the toxic chemical entering the stormwater system leading out to the river. Karbochem were seen by locals dousing the river with HTH as an autonomous move to 'neutralise' the cyanide. HTH is a popular pool cleaner, belonging to the chemical family, Hypochlorite, in essence containing mostly chlorine. HTH is classified as an oxider, toxic by inhalation, corrosive, a skin and eye hazard and a lung toxin. What is also not being revealed is the type of cyanide that was released, was it Potassium Cyanide or Sodium Cyanide (or any of the other cyanide compounds)? The former being more lethal with severe over-exposure producing lung-damage, choking, unconsciousness or death. Still the 'Right to Know' is always an issue, industry knows, government knows, but the people don't know.

Later on the day of the incident, the water authority, released 50 000 litres of water through the sluice gates of the Ntshingwyo Dam, to flush out the cyanide. Have they not heard the age-old environmental call "Dilution is not the Solution to Pollution!". All this does is move the cyanide downstream and with high temperatures in summer the high rate of evaporation may still prove to leave the concentrated chemical compound forms elsewhere in the system such as riverine alluvial deposits.

When the uThukela Water authority was approached for an interview a week after the incident, the callous response was "we have exhausted the cyanide issue". This is an extremely irresponsible comment in light of the toxicity of the chemical, the nature of the release body (impact to human drinking water and ecosystem destruction) and the fact that pollution does not simply vanish, the consequences are felt beyond the day of the incident. The industry and the water authority repetitively in the media report on exact figures such as "16 000 litres of water a second was released into the river from the dam"; "2 ppm of cyanide now in the water" and yet no-one has released the hard fact, how much cyanide was released into the waterways?

AfriForum issued an immediate alert to all farmers in the region, issuing additional information on the lethal nature of cyanide. According to Julius Kleynhans, AfriForum's Head of Environmental Affairs, cyanide makes the cells of an organism unable to use oxygen. "A fatal dose for humans can be as low as 1.5 mg/kg body weight. Inhalation of high concentrations of cyanide causes a coma with seizures, apnea, and cardiac arrest, with death following in a matter of minutes", said Kleynhans.

The authorities have reported taking samples, however, much later than the actual timeframe of the incident, having to access industrial information as proof. Karbochem's testing revealed that the levels of cyanide had dropped to 'safe levels' at 2 ppm (parts per million). These tests were conducted by the company and the issue of self-regulation comes into play where industry monitors themselves. Government, when such incidents occur, rely on industrial information and often as seen with polluting incidents, the culprits often receive a mere 'slap on the wrist' punitive measure. High risk industries, certainly ones in close proximity to drinking water sources should be vigorously monitored and audited by government consistently and with surprise spot-checks. Self-regulation amounts to this, imagine if all drivers were allowed to monitor and regulate themselves, how many traffic fines do you think would be issued by traffic law-breakers?

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Topics: Water Pollution