Criminals cause diesel spill as Transnet sees 'dramatic' spike in fuel theft

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Fuel spills can be costly and complex to clean.
Fuel spills can be costly and complex to clean.
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An illegal fitting discovered on Transnet's fuel pipeline between Jameson Park and Alrode in Gauteng on Sunday caused a leak that left emergency workers fighting to contain the spread of a pool of diesel, water and sewerage.

The incident comes on the back of a dramatic spike in fuel theft as prices rocket. 

In its response to questions from Fin24, Transnet Pipelines did not specify how much diesel was spilled. It said emergency workers were deployed immediately, but that they struggled to isolate the fuel leak location due to a sewerage leak upstream that left the area waterlogged and overrun with effluent.

Ultimately, the illegal fitting was found along the N3 near Mapleton, Boksburg, the company said.

Petroleum products contain several potentially toxic compounds and diesel contamination can pose serious environmental risks and health risks through water contamination. Fuel clean-ups can be costly and challenging.

This is not the first time criminals have caused a diesel spill this year. In March, thieves trying to steal diesel from the pipeline between Durban and Heidelberg caused the contamination of the Meul River.

Transnet said at the time that its security interventions had cut such incidents by half in the last year. However, the pipelines division told Fin24 on Tuesday that despite some early positive results, "the pilferage incidents have increased dramatically" and, since April, it has now seen over 40 incidents of theft.

It will keep working with law enforcement, it said.  

The state-owned logistics company's fuel pipelines transport all of SA's bulk petroleum, and the line between Jameson Park and Alrode is part of a multi-billion-rand multi-product network project designed to have a lifeline of more than 70 years. But Transnet has been battling increasing theft and vandalism that have left it forking out billions in a bid to safeguard its infrastructure.

Fuel theft has been a major problem for the company, resulting in millions of litres of fuel losses, damage to infrastructure, and environmental damage. In the 2019/2020 year alone, 8.5 million litres of fuel valued at R102 million were lost to theft.  

READ amaBhungane: How armed gangs steal millions worth of fuel from buried Transnet pipelines

In the financial year ending 3 March 2022, Transnet recorded its highest-ever theft of copper cable – some 1 000km. In the hopes of curbing the problem – which has hit already ailing power supplies and left trains stranded – government has proposed a six-month ban on the export of scrap and waste metal.

Transnet Pipelines Chief Executive Michelle Phillips told Fin24 that a special join task force had been established to investigate illegal activities relating to fuel theft. 

"The leak from the illegal fitting was blocked off and containment measures were put into place to minimise the environmental damage, a task that was aggravated by the water and sewerage in the area," she said.

"The teams worked through the night to remove the illegal fitting, minimise environmental damage and repair the pipeline. The pipeline repairs have been completed this morning and the pipeline will be back in operation soon. The environmental response teams will remain on site and complete the environmental remediation work.

"[A]ny persons involved will face the full might of the law," Phillips added.

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