So much diesel had spilled into the Verkykerskop section of the Meul River in the Free State during last week’s Transnet fuel pipeline heist, it will take at least four months to rehabilitate the river and surrounding drenched farmland.
Transnet is yet to complete the final calculations on the extent of the spill and environmental damage, but it is estimated that in addition to the diesel that flowed into the river, at least 6,000 square metres of land and vegetation used for livestock grazing was also affected.
The Meul River, which runs into the Vaal Dam – which supplies millions of people and animals, including the entire Gauteng province, with drinking water – was flooded with diesel when thieves tampered with a block valve to steal diesel.
By the time Transnet Pipelines National Control Centre detected the pressure drop and dispatched technicians, the block-valve on the pipeline between Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, and Heidelberg, in Gauteng, was a fountain of diesel flowing into the river about 300 meters away.
Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment spokesperson Albi Modise said Transnet Pipe Line (TPL) on Tuesday submitted an incident report to the department, indicating that land impact of about 5-metre width and 2.5 metre depth.
The report pointed out that the diesel flowed on a stretch of land which is approximately 340 metres to the river and that the water impact was on an area of approximately 78 km in length.
“The site is being made safe and the containment booms have been effective. Rehabilitation of the river bank and the original spill site is currently underway and work onsite will take approximately 4 months. The total cost is still being determined by TPL. At this stage the priority for TPL is to stabilise the site,” he added.
Transnet has explained that the first part of the clean-up was an emergency response aimed at containing the spill and recover the diesel from the river.
The second part involves rehabilitating the dry land which was drenched during the spillage and ensuring that it is restored to its original state.
“Then we need to prepare a report for the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) on what we have done with our legal obligations to clean up and rehabilitate the environment,” Transnet Spokesperson Saret Knoetze said on Wednesday.
She said this also included treatment and rehabilitation of the soil on the banks of the river, as well as ensuring that pockets of soil on the spill path were treated.
Once all the stages have been covered, the containment and rehabilitation response report would have to be approved by the department before the site could be handed back to farmers, who have since moved their livestock from the river and contaminated land.
Knoetze said police were following up on leads to those behind the heist, as a double-cab Nissan bakkie believed to be an escort and a tanker used to pump out the diesel were caught driving out of the area on the farmers’ artificial intelligence-powered surveillance camera system.
In September last year, The Citizen reported how theft from Transnet’s bulk fuel pipeline network traversing five provinces has reached crisis levels, with at least 3 million litres of fuel stolen in 50 incidents last year alone.
In April, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan revealed that fuel worth almost R250 million had been stolen from the state-owned rail, logistics, port and pipeline company since March 2019.