Coast KZN

02 Dec 2017

MSC cleans up Durban’s harbour spill

Duncan Guy (Independent on Saturday) Picture: Durban Sea World staff help clean up plastic nurdles from uShaka Beach. (Photo Credit: Sea World)

The nurdle clean-up has cleared Durban harbour of much of its litter.

“This, I suppose, is a success that the port authorities would thank us for given the state of the harbour when we arrived,” said Nick Sloane, who returned to the city of his childhood to manage the clean-up.

MSC Shipping contracted his company, Resolve Marine Group, and Drizit Environmental, to clear up the nurdles which went into the water after a container came off a ship during the storm of October 10. The container belonged to the Saudi Arabian chemicals company, SABIC.

Between 2013 and 2015, Sloane was at the helm of the salvage operation that removed the cruise liner, the Costa Concordia, from where it ran aground off the island of Isola del Giglio in the Mediterranean. He has recently been in the US and the Caribbean, where Resolve responded to hurricane devastation.

Sloane said separating tiny nurdles, large volumes of debris and rubbish washed down the rivers into Durban’s harbour and beaches was the biggest challenge in the clean-up.

“For every kilo of nurdles recovered, you have already processed tens of kilos of debris. This means the clean-up teams need to have the logistics in place to not only deal with recovered nurdles, but to remove the debris and rubbish at the same time,” he said.

“It also means the public is benefiting from a much larger clean-up of the harbour and port, with more debris being picked up than just the cargo of nurdles that was displaced in the storm.”

Sloane said the job was pretty unpredictable.

“We are at the mercy of the movements of the ocean, the rivers and various weather factors. The beaches we clean can be quickly re-charged with nurdles. However, we are no strangers to these types of condition and have worked in far more austere conditions.”

Going about the task involved, firstly, selecting which areas to assess.

“The nurdles, which have collected on the beaches near Durban and in isolated spots along the coast, have been carefully analysed and traced back to Durban harbour.



“The unexpected ferocity of the storm over the hours after the containers spilled the cargo on October 10 led to a large volume being driven out of the port entrance and into the swirl of the currents that run on the North and South Breakwaters, the counter-current inshore and up the coast towards uMhlanga Rocks.

“The Southern Mozambique current heading down towards East London, where it morphs into the Agulhas Current, has also been at play here. We mapped the locations of reported sightings, either from life guards along the KZN beaches, the public or sport fisherman, and took this map as the base-line of the initial response.”

The clean-up operation itself involved the deployment of divers and boat teams.

“We deploy our workers on the beach who sieve sand and collect the nurdles on sheets to be packed up and removed.”

Sloane said cleaning up the port and miles and miles of beaches was not a quick operation and it may take several months altogether.

“We’re working hard to cover the main Durban beaches and hot-spots along the coast in time for the end-of-year holidays.”

He said the early summer rains had not helped.

“Extra water in the rivers brings down a lot more debris, clouding the clean-up process on the beaches.”

Recent spring tides also had an impact.

“They caused some of the nurdles trapped within the harbour breakwaters and rocky areas of the shoreline to be released. Then you get a further ‘tide’ of nurdles washing up on the spring high-water marks, along the beaches and breakwaters.

“Then a repeat clean-up is required.”

Sloane hoped that the new volumes of nurdles released would drop with the passing of each spring tide cycle since the incident and the impact would be seen to be diminishing with each cycle. His clean-up operation keeps carrying out detailed searches of the waters and seabed areas of the port.

“And we continue to take heed of other sightings by the public.

“First we want to limit the chance of any damage to marine life. Secondly, we want to remove as many nurdles as possible so there isn’t too much impact over the holiday season on popular beaches.”

Sloane said that what stood out was that “we are fortunate in South Africa that we have the labour force, and HazMat companies used to clean-ups”.