Petronet Gas Pipeline Rupture - Commission fails to find culpability! - Community Rejects Report!

27 October 2006 - The results of the ‘Commission of Enquiry into the rupture of the gas pipeline at Belvedere, Tongaat on 24 December 2001’ – finding that neither Petronet nor Sasol nor government is responsible – is a disappointing outcome for groundWork, and for civil society in general who are growing more alarmed each year with the failure of government to appropriately deal with corporate industrial incidents that harm people and the environment. The community representatives from the Tongaat Civil Association, and the Councillor of the area, Mr Abrahams, rejected the report.

MEC Ndabandaba has missed a key political opportunity to improve environmental governance with regard to fuel pipelines in KwaZulu-Natal, and most probably nationally. The fact that the Commission did not make more detailed recommendations with regard to future management of pipeline – even if it was outside the scope of their ambit – possibly indicates that the Commission has no faith in the governance systems to respond to such recommendations in a meaningful and effective manner.

The MEC’s statement that an audit of all pipelines will be undertaken in the province is welcomed, and his Department should have commenced with this in 2003, considering the various pipeline incidents in the province in 2001 and 2002.

During the Commission it was recognised that a variety of legal cases were taking place between parties – including government departments – for loss of earnings due to the rupture of the pipeline. Maybe the failure to apportion blame could be understood in this light.

We believe that during the Commission a sound argument was developed to indicate that:

- Petronet failed to effectively monitor their pipeline, servitude and adjacent areas; in fact during this process, just a few kilometres away from the sight of the rupture, houses have been built around the pipeline, on the border of the servitude;

- Petronet did not keep the necessary records of the pipeline monitoring and also destroyed records of telephone logs of that would have informed the Commission of how the response process did occur on 24 December 2001;

- Petronet did not follow the all American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) procedures which it was required to do when granted permission to operate and convert the pipeline from crude oil to gas;

- The pipeline was already moving before the incident of 24 December 2001, and it was not only a suddenly and violent occurrence which caused the events of the day.

There are various other factors which are of concern to groundWork. These factors will be reviewed by our legal advisor before further responses are made on this report, which we only received on Thursday evening.

Critically, and recognised by the Commission, at various times information that would have been pertinent to the process was not available. This in itself is a key challenge that the Commission should have deliberated on and made a finding on. The lack of good information systems within government departments and this failure to call for, hold and act upon information is in itself an indictment on the process of good governance.

It is alarming that the Commission accepted Petronet’s version and interpretation of the Terms of Reference for the Commission, namely that the enquiry is limited to the area of impact and that the re-routing of the pipeline was not to be considered. The re-routing of the pipeline is the one sure action that would protect the community from experiencing such a catastrophic event again and, more importantly, adopts the precautionary principle as advocated within the National Environmental Management Act of 1998.

In the light of all the above it was our submission that Petronet had not conducted themselves in the manner of a reasonable (and prudent) operator, in that they have been negligent with regard to: the monitoring and patrolling of the pipeline; the geotechnical information that informed the conversion process; the failure to note, investigate and follow up the activities consequent on and including the slippage and unravelling of the bank of the school sports fields; the failure to adequately inform the public both in relation to the emergency plan and in relation to the broader education program; and the inordinate delay in closing off the closest block valve to prevent further gas escaping from the rupture.

This Commission’s failure has delivered an indictment on the process of Commission of Enquiries. Future Commission of Enquiries will most probably be viewed with scepticism and caution, and even vetoed considering the outcomes of this Commission.

The MEC did indicate that he will “revisit a number of the ideas” that were brought up at the press conference and in the report, possibly indicates that he himself is not satisfied with the report. Presently the Durban Metro is planning on more homes within the vicinity of the pipeline.


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