Public Eye on Davos - Focus on Shell in south Durban, South Africa “Can Shell build trust?”

Davos, Switzerland; Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, 24 January 2003 - Just four months after the infamous World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), the world leaders and corporates (such as Shell) gather this week in Davos, Switzerland, to further entrench globalisation and its associated ills.

At the WSSD, Shell was outspoken in committing itself to environmental and social sustainability. However, since September 2002, Shell's contradictory record in south Durban, South Africa, speaks volumes for its “commitment”. Here Shell continues its usual practice of dumping pollution on communities due to poor operational systems, misrepresenting information to the public, withholding information from the public and suffering worker injuries. The Shell oil refinery in South Africa is notorious for being guilty of the world’s biggest petrol spill when, in 2001, more than a million litres of petrol leaked from pipelines into the ground below community homes in South Durban. Shell has still not come forward with the final figure of the amount of petrol lost.

FoE South Africa raises concerns at the Public Eye on Davos about the reality that multi-nationals like Shell are not being held accountable for their environmental and human rights abuses in the South.

Since the WSSD in September 2002, Shell operations have continued to negatively impact on the people of south Durban as follows:

  • On September 1, a sulphur pressure vessel exploded at the oil refinery
  • On October 23, Shell had to shut down the plant under emergency conditions as they did not have a back-up power source to deal with power disruptions to the plant, which occur regularly. Flaring of gases and chemicals occurred resulting in heavy clouds of pollution being blown down onto the community. Shell did not monitor their pollution this day, but claimed that “gases burnt safely”. FoE, South Africa and its community partner, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), however, took air samples and the following chemicals were found in the sample: Benzene, m,p-Xylene, o-Xylene, Toluene, Ethyl Benzene. Benzene is a known carcinogen and is also known to cause leukaemia. The childhood leukaemia rates in south Durban are 24 times higher then the South African average.
  • A worker was injured while fuel pipelines were being cleaned out in November.

In the Shell 2001 Environmental and Social Performance for the refinery, Shell misrepresented information to the public, by stating that:

“"The cause (of their more than million litre petrol leak under community houses in South Durban) was traced to a small four millimetre hole in a 12 kilometre pipeline used to transfer petrol from SAPREF to Island View - a pipeline that carries anything up to 10 million litres of petrol every day and had been doing so without incident for more than 30 years."

Misrepresentation is reflected in that this particular pipeline has not carried petrol for 30 years. It was previously used for Marine Furnace Oil. Secondly, and more importantly, there was a fuel pipeline leak in 1995, which resulted in people from south Durban having to be treated in hospital. Coupled with the above, Shell has refused to hand over information on their pollution to community people, and continue to believe it is possible to exclude key critics of the company, including community members and organizations that have been far more reliable sources of information about the company’s environmental problems than Shell management.

Added to the above incidents and modus operandi, Shell management actively lobbied the Mayor of Durban (eThekwini Municipality) to “reconsider” the legal action the Health Department of the Municipality was to bring against Shell to hold them accountable for their environmental disasters. The legal case has subsequently been “stalled”, and the south Durban community is still waiting for government to hold Shell accountable.

The central theme of the World Economic Forum is Building Trust! Can civil society honestly trust industries who act we have seen above seen? Our government must deliver on its WSSD promise to pass and implement binding regulations that will hold corporations accountable for their actions and negligence.


For more information contact Bobby Peek in Davos on 0941 79 673 1240 or