Crime spree blacks out PMB

2013-12-21 00:00

THREE Pietermaritzburg engineers have been seriously injured, and a third of the city plunged into a power outage yesterday, because of an organised crime blitz on mini-substations this week.

Yesterday, senior city electrical engineer Ntambo Mgwili was being treated in the intensive care unit at St Anne’s Hospital and engineer Freeway Mthembu was in Medi-Clinic’s ICU, after the electrical switchgear exploded as they tried to repair one of the city’s major substations at Mason’s Mill. Another electrician, Ace Mnikathi, also sustained burn injuries and was being treated in a high care ward.

At least 15 neighbourhoods, from Hayfields to Hilton, were without power, while the city’s top electricity officials warned that the “attack” on the city’s power infrastructure meant a greater risk of black-outs in the festive season weeks to come.

Msunduzi electricity head Sabatha Nomnganga told Weekend Witness the explosion was triggered by criminal copper-theft raids on three smaller substations on Wednesday night, which caused localised outages on Thursday, and then triggered the explosion in a “knock-on effect” and a broader outage on Friday. He said one thief was believed to have been killed at the vandalised substation in West Street, and that his body had been dragged away by accomplices. The “syndicate” had jammed the substation’s doors closed from the inside, extending black-out losses for local businesses.

He said security guards had been posted to protect even mini-substations which dot the city’s suburbs.

“In one night on Wednesday, three mini substations were hit by copper thieves who stole scrap metal, earth leakage bars and copper cables,” said Nomnganga, who praised the bravery of the three electricians.

Yesterday, a brother of stricken engineer Mthembu told Weekend Witness: “I went to see him this morning and he was in a bad condition, but we thank God that he was still alive and we hope he is going to recover soon,” he said.

Msunduzi Mayor Chris Ndlela said he was “shocked and saddened” at the incidents, “I rushed over to St Anne’s Hospital on Thursday night after hearing what happened. It was shocking to see how badly our staff members were injured, while just doing their work. I want to express my sympathy to the families.”

Ndlela said the municipality had launched a massive, two-year programme to overhaul and rehabilitate the electricity grid, but appealed to residents to “be patient” as the project rolled out.

In addition to the copper theft, Nomnganga said “ageing infrastructure” may have factored into the outages — saying the switchgear at Mason’s Mill had been manufactured in 1958, and had “reached its sell-by-date”. He said the explosion was being investigated by both city officials and police.

Nomnganga estimated that the direct cost of the damage to the infrastructure was at R10 million — excluding the money paid to contractors and losses to businesses.

After the explosion on Thursday night, city electricians worked through the night at Mason’s Mill to clean up and repair the damaged substation, which was blackened with carbon. Teams brought take-away chicken boxes to the site as they worked through into the late morning.

Nomnganga said the explosion led directly to outages in at least nine neighbourhoods ●— Grange, Pelham, Napierville, Pentrich, Westgate, Foxhill, Hayfields, parts of Plessislaer and Bisley.

But the event also had a domino effect for black-outs in Hilton, Sweetwaters and the northern suburbs including Woodlands, Northdale and Raisethorpe.

At the scene of one raided substation, a visibly angry Nomnganga told Deputy Mayor Thobani Zuma and DMM for Infrastructure Thokozani Maseko that “we need to shut down all the metal dealers found with our copper cables, because we are fighting a losing battle in our efforts to minimise power outages in the city”.

He said the theft of earth leakages posed the danger of substations “blowing up”, and added, “We have managed to minimise power failure in the city but 99% of outages now are because of illegal connections and copper theft.”

Nomnganga said the thieves were “highly skilled” engineers who were able to defeat existing security at substations — and who deliberately targeted mini-substations because they had lower current.

“These are highly skilled people,” he said.

Nomnganga said surveillance of the sites would also be increased.

One businessman, Sagran Naidoo — director of PMB Forestry and Industrial Supplies CC — said electrical and computer equipment had been damaged as a result of power surges associated with the black-outs.

Meanwhile, Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business (PCB) CEO, Melanie Veness acknowledged the increasing threat posed by copper theft, but said the main challenge remained the infrastructure upgrade.

She said she had fielded numerous calls from concerned members. “We are seriously concerned about the state of our transformers and we have factories that are on shut down and we are worried what will happen when they open in the new year.”

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