Durban fuel pipelines 'leaking like sieves'

Durban's largest fuel refinery is frantically patching up its rusty underground pipelines in South Durban after a safety inspection revealed more than 260 "weak spots", mostly in residential areas.

The inspection was completed late last year after more than a million litres of petrol gushed out of a pipeline in Tara Road in Wentworth.

The leak went unnoticed by the Sapref (Shell and BP) refinery until Wentworth residents complained about the stench of petrol fumes in their homes.

Earlier this week, shoppers on their way to the Bluff Pick 'n Pay and Shoprite shopping centres saw 1 000 litres of diesel gushing into the air alongside Tara Road, where contractors were busy repairing the rustiest sections of buried fuel pipelines.

Although the latest leak was relatively small and the result of a bumbling operator hitting a pipe by mistake with a mechanical digger, the incident did little to relieve the anxiety of local residents who live above the pipes.

Since the million-litre spillage in Tara Road last year, several resident groups have been trying to find out more details on the safety of Durban's fuel pipelines, which date back 40 to 50 years.

Sapref has seven pipelines which snake for 12km through the residential areas between Isipingo, north of Amanzimtoti on the south coast, and Durban harbour, while Engen has eight pipelines following a similar route.

The Sapref pipes were inspected less than four years ago and apparently given a clean bill of health by refinery managers.

Finally, after months of delays, Sapref gave journalists a preliminary peek at the scale of the rust damage this week.

According to summarised data presented by Sapref managing director Richard Parkes, at least 264 "rust defects" have been detected on the company's transfer pipes.

Engen, meanwhile, has not published the results of its latest pipeline safety inspections.

But in a recent letter to the city health department, refinery production manager Willem Oosthuizen, said he was "uncomfortable" about sharing any results with the local community unless an independent safety report was "shared with us, before involving any community members".

"The information is of an extreme technical nature and there is a risk of creating a major uproar and confusion among community members due to a lack of understanding of some of the data."

But on Sapref's worst affected pipe, 98 defects were found where rust had eaten away up to 70 percent of the refinery's recommended rust limit. There were another 93 areas on this pipe where there had been up to 50 percent metal loss.

The other six pipelines are not as bad, but contain at least 30 "suspect" spots.

Sapref says the majority of these defects have been cut out and replaced with new steel - but South Durban community spokesman Desmond D'Sa is demanding that the entire pipeline network be ripped up and replaced, rather than being "patched up".

Parkes feels the estimated bill of R200m for the replacement of the pipes is not justified, and denies they have been "patched up".

He said weak spots were being cut out entirely and repaired to American safety standards.

But D'Sa and other residents seem intent on a separate and independent investigation.

"It looks like the pipes are completely vrot, yet the city refuses to prosecute or hold Sapref accountable for its negligence," according to D'Sa.

Sapref admitted it was "surprised" by the inspection results, but maintains the integrity of the network can be restored adequately.

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