Durban’s fire department has refused to give the green light to a multimillion-rand housing project that has been on the cards since 2005, because it would be too close to a gas pipeline.

A Transnet gas pipeline cuts across the proposed eMona Sunhills Housing development in Tongaat, where the eThekwini municipality plans to build 1 087 low-cost houses.

But the development has been condemned by the city’s own fire department, which remains resolute in its refusal to give the project the go-ahead.

The department has raised objections regarding the safety distance between the planned housing development and the gas pipeline.

The 457.2mm-diameter pipeline carries methane from Durban to Secunda in Mpumalanga.

Several people were injured by clods of earth when the same pipeline exploded and ripped open a school playing field and damaged property in Tongaat on Christmas Eve in 2001. A commission of inquiry cleared Petronet of negligence, shifting the blame instead towards a geotechnical engineering firm and structural engineering company.

The pipeline was identified in an environmental study and it was recommended that there be a further risk-assessment study. A report to be tabled before the municipality’s human settlements and infrastructure committee today states that a major hazard installation risk assessment was done by independent consultants in 2008. The study recommended a safety distance of 10m.

Thereafter changes were made to the layout. “Most departments approved the layout, but the fire department… raised concern about the safety distance of 10m and suggested 300m,” the report reads.

However, leaving a 300m-wide safety distance would wipe out more than 70 percent of the development, the report said. “This then indicates that the project is unfeasible and must be closed immediately.”

The housing project was 90-percent complete. Procurement for all professionals was complete and “the council is obliged to honour their end of the contract”, the report said.

The motivation expressed in the report for the project to go ahead was that the housing department had “invested funding, time and resources”.

Mark Te Water, municipal acting head of fire and emergencies, said the fire department was not satisfied that the project satisfied accepted norms and standards for sensitive land use in proximity to pressurised natural gas pipelines.

“The fire department, on this basis, cannot support the Sunhills Housing Project as currently proposed without having additional mitigatory measures put in place,” he said.

Te Water said the concerns that the evaluation team had were related to the “radiative heat” effects that the ignition of a significant gas leak could have on communities.

Zamani Ntuli, a community leaders, said residents desperately needed houses and were not concerned about the gas pipeline.

“The community marched to the municipal offices on Mandela Day (July 18)… We suggested that the safety distance for the pipeline should be 40m because the pipeline has been there for years and there are millions of people who have built over it,” he said.

Michael Abraham, ANC councillor for ward 61, said the pipeline posed no danger to the community.

But DA councillor Jethro Lefevre said proper environmental assessments were not done, and good policy was needed to prevent “catastrophic last-minute situations where people’s lives can be… endangered… How did we get this far [into the project] before we discovered there is a gas pipeline?” he said. - The Mercury