DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA—When the UN World Conference Against Racism begins on Friday, August 31, in South Africa, the issue of environmental racism will be missing from the agenda. Just 10 minutes south of Durban, the city playing host to some 20,000 conference participants, lies a valley of toxic chemical pollution whose noxious gasses will be unavoidably inhaled, yet programmatically ignored. Also, as this article goes to press, reports are emerging of yet another suspected local pipeline leak, courtesy of Shell and BP.
South Durban is an area, like Harlem and the South Bronx, where because the residents are poor and black, toxic waste has been dumped unregulated. It is home to some of the worst industrial pollution committed by multinational companies and environmental damage the world over. It is also where scores of blacks and South Asians were forcibly relocated during the apartheid days as a labor source for oil, paper, and chemical industry. In this post-apartheid era, residents say, nothing has changed.
On Sunday, South Durban community residents-turned-environmental-activists took some 150 early conference arrivals on what they called the Toxic Tour. The tour began atop a hill with extensive views over South Durban. Look left, and one sees the gorgeous Indian Ocean. Look right, and one sees smoke stacks, large tin cylindrical tanks above ground pipes crisscrossing the land, funnel-shaped constructions puffing away, and most disturbingly, a long canal running from the necks of chugging oil refineries and production plants directly to the ocean. The canal also passes through many people’s backyards. The tour guide’s voice choked as he related how local children, unable to understand the dangers, often snuck into the canal to swim and play.
Why, wondered a father who lives in the area, did the tour participants not go closer to the source of the pollution’s smell—”the rotten eggs we live with day in, day out, the rotten eggs we cannot escape even in our dreams, the rotten eggs that our children believe is how the world smells.” The stench of rotten eggs comes from the hydrogen sulfide that Shell and BP have been dumping in the community without regulation. Hydrogen Sulfide along with sulfur dioxide, also emitted by the multinational industrial plants at grossly high levels, is a prime trigger for asthma and respiratory attacks. One in four South Durban residents suffers from asthma.
In the black and brown community of Wentworth, closest to the main polluting culprits of Shell, BP, Engen, Bayer, and Mondi paper mill, the air (and the undeniable environmental racism) thickens. So bad is the smell here that residents of the white neighboring suburb of Bluff has constructed a “buffer zone” of thick brush between themselves and their “colored” neighbors. This is the area where, the day after our tour, Shell and BP announced their pipeline’s leak.
Desmond D’Sa, a resident of Wentworth, has lived amid the toxins since his family was forcibly relocated there in 1966, when apartheid legislation stripped people of color of their land and homes. D’Sa talks of the industry’s dumping of gasses, pipeline leaks, corroding pipe breakages, and plant explosions. In one explosion, he tells us in an outraged voice, tons of hydrofluoric acid was released into the air. And in May of this year, an Engen worker (Engen is a large oil refinery, previously owned by Mobil) accidentally opened a valve, and a tiny amount of acid squirted onto his face. He died instantly. Asks D’Sa, “If we now know that such a small amount of this acid can kill a man, how is it that the company got away with saying the five tons it emitted during the explosion in 1998 is not harmful to the people living right around here?”
Cecil Corbin-Mark, program director of WeACT (West Harlem Environmental Action) saw too many similarities between Wentworth and Harlem, saying, “Wentworth is so close to home, yet I am so far away. East Harlem and the South Bronx are home to depots filled with diesel-fueled buses and trucks, which have led us to have the highest rates of asthma in the U.S.” Like D’Sa, Corbin-Mark believes that it is no accident that environmental crimes are committed by powerful corporations against poor people of color, who lack the resources to pursue justice through courts of law.
An older Durban resident, Mrs. Field, explained that her two young grandchildren constantly had sores on their arms and legs. She didn’t know what caused them, but despite the hot sun, she kept her windows shut as a precaution. Seventeen-year-old Dean Purru was irritated that he had no relief from putrid odors: “Even when I eat, I often feel ill because all I can smell is waste products.”
Communities for a Better Environment, a U.S.-based environmental justice group, assisted local residents in a study that showed the Engen plant was polluting 10 times more than similar plants in the U.S. Further community research, aided by the Boston-based South African Exchange Program on Environmental Justice, showed that in South Durban the levels of benzene, a gas linked to causing leukemia, were 30 times higher than those permitted in the U.S. Leukemia rates in Durban are 24 times the national average, and respiratory problems are four times higher. In March 1998, after years of protest, Engen finally agreed to reduce its pollution. Residents are still waiting for the company to make good on its promise.
A 10-minute drive from the Engen plant is a former mercury and arsenic toxic waste dump surrounded by run-down houses. The area is a classic case of environmental racism, in which toxic waste is exported from rich white communities to poor black ones. In 1997, when the smell was too great to bear, the community succeeded in having the site closed. Bobby Peek, director of the South African-based Environmental Justice and Human Right’s Organization GroundWork, says of his people’s victories over the past few years, “We smell; we become monitors.” Peek has lost his mother, his niece, and three rugby buddies over the last few years to cancer. To him, this is no mere coincidence.
As tour participants hovered near the gates of the site (now apparently a nontoxic dump for ash), Peek received a call on his cell phone from the manager of the site threatening to have him arrested for trespassing. Peek was careful to note that no one had trespassed, and in defense of his unannounced arrival, Peek responded, “It’s not about private property; it’s about our land in our community, and all we are doing is bringing people here to peacefully observe your practices.” Corporate accountability, Peek believes, comes only when local residents document the evidence.
After digesting the toxic nightmare that is South Durban, Corbin-Mark of WeACT wondered how the UN Conference Against Racism organizers and attendees could possibly ignore what was right under their noses. The victims of some of the most deadly racism have yet to be offered a forum to make their case.
“Durban Diary: Scenes From the UN Conference Against Racism” by Rachel Neumann
“Compensation Counts: An Activist Speaks on Reparations and the UN Conference Against Racism” by Chisun Lee
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 28, 2001