Hundreds of birds, some of them on the Red Data (endangered) list, could be affected by a massive pump failure on the Richards Bay pipeline, which pumps effluent into the sea.

As a consequence of the accident, a destination which has proved that a good working relationship between industry, tourism and conservation is possible, also finds itself threatened.

The Thulasihleka Pan Bird Sanctuary in Richards Bay, home to a large variety of water birds, has had its access road cut off and its birding hides covered in a metre of “steaming and foul-smelling” water.

“We won’t know what the impact will be until we know what contaminants were in the water,” said Duncan Pritchard of BirdLife’s South Africa Zululand Birding Route.

The pipeline in question carries industrial effluent from the town’s major industries out to sea – among them Mondi, Foskor, Bayside and Hillside. On Friday it poured thousands of litres of effluent into the pan.

Speaking about the sequence of events, Pritchard explained that the pump had failed at about 2pm on Saturday and effluent had been released through safety valves, overflowing out of the pipeline.

After one of BirdLife’s local guides alerted Pritchard to the leak, he went to investigate. Foskor employees told him they were having trouble shutting down the outflow pipe.

“It took them five hours to deal with what should have been a 20-minute job. All they needed was a front-end loader to move sand, to block off the spillage flowing into the pan,” said Pritchard.

Instead it had taken the intervention of both the public and local journalists before Foskor had placed a temporary berm at 7pm.

“This pan has a long history of pollution,” said Pritchard. “Can you imagine what’s pouring into the sea? All the industries pump their mess via this pipeline.”

The final composition of the outflow includes gypsum, heavy metals, sulphates and phosphates. What was of particular concern was flouride.

A recent study had shown fluoride levels in the pan exceeded toxic levels.

“Flouride occurs in quantities that are known to cause skeletal fluorosis in vertebrates, a condition affecting bird’s egg shells and bones.”

Foskor’s staff had indicated that the effluent only contained outflow from Mondi. The analysis, which would prove or disprove this, is only expected tomorrow. “Right now, everyone is passing the buck,” Pritchard claimed.

Several waterbirds use the Thulasihleka Pan as a breeding site. It is home to at least 15 Red Data waterbird species – such as goliath heron, lesser jacana and little bittern – and at least nine colonial breeding waterbird species.

Hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of both pink-backed and Eastern white pelicans frequent the pan. Rarities such as Baillons crake, spotted crake, redshank, western marsh harrier and Eurasian bittern also occasionally visit.

As a result of the polluted ground water, water lilies, which had once been common, Pritchard said, had virtually disappeared. This also affected associated species such as pygmy geese, which had become scarcer.

While many industrial companies had tried to make a positive difference in the area, some had a very poor environmental track record, he said.

BirdLife Zululand had attempted to engage with all the companies surrounding the pan, but Foskor had failed to attend any meetings, or get involved with conservation efforts at the bird sanctuary.

Environmentalists were particularly worried that there seemed to be no plan in place to deal with bigger and possibly catastrophic spills, such as those that occurred in the 1980s.

“They left the pan almost entirely devoid of life,” Pritchard said.

Richard’s Bay Councillor Liz Wood said, given modern technology, this should never have happened. “The sand barrier was too little too late. They should face a steep fine for polluting the environment.”

The Sunday Tribune was unable to obtain comment from Foskor, whose main switchboard was unanswered. No answering machine kicked in to relay emergency contact details.