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Engen oil refinery pollution in Durban, South Africa

The Engen oil refinery has polluted Durban over decades spanning hundreds of accidents and incidents. Protesting groups fought for the right to mobilize after legal action banning demonstrations outside of the refinery.


Durban has suffered from refinery pollution for decades owing to carcinogens and respiratory irritants such as benzene and sulfur dioxide produced during oil processing [6]. Malaysian-owned Engen is one of the worst petrochemical factories, and in 1993, former petroleum plant worker living near the Engen facility Desmond D’Sa founded the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) [5, 6]. The SDCEA carried out a community health survey resulting in high incidences of cancer and respiratory disease. Another study with the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine also showed that 52% of staff and students at a school next to Engen had asthma [6]. The SDCEA subsequently started regular anti-pollution demonstrations against Engen and other major polluters along with other groups such as Sven “Bobby” Peek’s groundWork in a coalition called the South Durban Steering Committee for Environmental Management (SDSCEM) bringing together community organizations across racial divisions and causes before engaging with industry and government stakeholders [3]. 

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Engen oil refinery pollution in Durban, South Africa
Country:South Africa
State or province:KwaZulu-Natal
Location of conflict:Durban
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Oil and gas refining
Specific commodities:Crude oil
Natural Gas
Project Details and Actors
Project details

The Engen oil refinery has a capacity of 135 000 barrels of crude oil a day and supplies 1 500 service stations in Southern Africa and the Indian Ocean islands [4]. It also produces 60 tons of sulfur dioxide each day. In the south Durban area alone, more than 100 smoke stacks belch out more than 54 million kilograms of sulfur dioxide each year. Meanwhile, toxic leachate runs into storm water drains and children in local schools have three times the rate of respiratory diseases as children living outside of the area as well as 24 times the rate of leukemia [3, 15].

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Level of Investment for the conflictive project2,600,000,000
Type of populationUrban
Start of the conflict:01/01/1993
Company names or state enterprises:Engen Petroleum from Malaysia
PETRONAS from Malaysia
Relevant government actors:eThekwini Municipality, KZN Police
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:South Durban Steering Committee for Environmental Management, Nelson Mandela School of Medicine, groundWork, SDCEA, Right2Know, Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of Michigan, South Durban Basin Community Development Trust, Engen Community Stakeholder Forum
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Industrial workers
International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Local scientists/professionals
Religious groups
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Referendum other local consultations
Street protest/marches
Property damage/arson
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Boycotts of companies-products
Refusal of compensation
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Fires, Global warming, Noise pollution, Oil spills, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems
Potential: Genetic contamination
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Occupational disease and accidents
Potential: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Loss of livelihood
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Criminalization of activists
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Court decision (undecided)
Strengthening of participation
Under negotiation
Violent targeting of activists
Application of existing regulations
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Engen has continued to pollute Durban and prevent protesters from mobilizing.
Sources & Materials

[1] News24. Protest demands oil refinery shutdown (Jantilal 2011)
[click to view]

[2] Right2Know. Engen refinery’s ‘National Key Points’ threat to community activists (2014)
[click to view]

[3] Goldman Environmental Foundation. Sven (Bobby) Peek (1998), of GroundWork.
[click to view]

[4] Mail&Guardian. Reparations row dogs petrol giant (Harper 2018)
[click to view]

[5] The Green Times. Crude oil haunts Durban community (Naidoo 2011)
[click to view]

[6] Global Policy. Durban’s poor fight for clean air (Clark 2004)
[click to view]

[7] SDCEA. Cancer ally: pollution maims and kills (2020)
[click to view]

[8] The New Humanitarian. Community takes on big polluters (2008)
[click to view]

[9] Mail&Guardian. Rights group wins court bid against Engen (Harper 2020)
[click to view]

[10] IOL. Protests outside refinery banned (Mngoma 2018)
[click to view]

[11] Mail&Guardian. Durban smokestacks back in court (Harper 2020)
[click to view]

[12] IOL. Engen refinery let us down (Newman 2018)
[click to view]

[13] Southlands Sun. Refinery responds to cancer protestors (2014)
[click to view]

[14] AF Truth. Wentworth residents continue their fight over contracts and shares in the company (Harper 2018)
[click to view]

[15] IOL. Wentworth community protests outside Engen Refinery (Newman 2018)
[click to view]

[16] The Star. 2 October 2019. Petronas-to-hold-ipo-for-south-africa-unit-engen-in-2020.
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Dalena Tran, ICTA-UAB, [email protected]
Last update06/08/2020
Conflict ID:5136
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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