Pipeline battle flows in fuel giant's favour

Merebank residents lost their Durban High Court battle against the Sasol fuel giant on Wednesday when Judge Alan Magid rejected their application for an urgent interdict to halt construction of a gas pipeline through their neighbourhood.

Judge Magid also ordered that the Merebank Environmental Action Committee should foot the legal costs of the court case, which include the legal fees of Sasol's counsel, Malcolm Wallis.

The judge said no evidence had been placed before the court to persuade him that residents had a reasonable apprehension of harm resulting from further construction work on the pipeline.

Judge Magid noted, however, that the community could still exercise their right to appeal to the provincial minister of environmental affairs against the granting of a pipeline permit to Sasol.

He said Sasol had given an assurance that, if an appeal was heard, the company would not rely on the financial costs involved in building the pipeline to bolster its case.

However, counsel for the community, Pops Aboobaker, said Environment Minister Narend Singh would inevitably become aware of the substantial costs associated with building a pipeline.

Anyone who believed the estimated R6,5-million construction bill would not influence an impartial appeal process was living in "Cloud Cuckoo Land".

"The community feels that Sasol does not care about its concerns, and that Sasol regards final approval to start pumping gas as a fait accompli."

But Wallis, for Sasol, argued that no justification had been presented to suggest a danger to life or limb.

"Unless you hold someone on top of the pipe and deprive them of oxygen, the worst harm it could cause (in the event of a leak) is a bad headache."

Asked by Judge Magid to specify precise details of the community's concerns, Aboobaker complained of incomplete documentation being supplied and an imbalance in resources between Sasol and the community.

He also urged the court to exercise extra sensitivity in ruling on a case involving environmental rights of a community.

"I am very sympathetic to the problems of the community," said Judge Magid, "but the community is not always right."

He wanted Aboobaker to clarify the legal status of the Merebank Environmental Action Committee so that Sasol would know from whom to recover its legal costs.

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