South African pipeline spill exposes eco-racism

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The Durban diesel disaster polluted rich whites’ gardens … but the cause is systematic discrimination against the black majority.

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by Patrick Bond

Over the holiday season, the front pages of the newspapers in Durban — South Africa’s third-largest city — screamed out again and again about a diesel spill. In the suburb of Hillcrest on December 23, a Durban-Johannesburg pipeline operated by the giant parastatal firm Transnet gushed 220 000 liters into wealthy white residents’ gardens.

The pipeline, built in 1965 and now at least four years past its official retirement date, annually carries three billion liters of petroleum products for BP, Shell and Malaysian-owned Engen. An anonymous company source confirmed to The Witness newspaper, “The underground pipe had burst along a weld line which had given way.” A Transnet spokesperson confessed that the Hillcrest clean-up would take “close to a year.”

Look more closely at the damage and how it might have been prevented. Not only should this become a case for rethinking both our addiction to climate-destroying fossil fuels and the Johannesburg region’s geographical illogicality and excessive air pollution.

Those were points made back in 2008 by one of the country’s finest civil society groups, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), when they predicted this sort of incident based on experiences with multinational corporations at Africa’s largest oil refinery site. In 2001, one pipeline used by Shell and BP spilled of 1.3 million liters of oil in the South Durban Bluff neighborhood (disclosure: this is where I live).

In addition, the mainly white Hillcrest residents’ Not In My Back Yard! (NIMBY) tradition stands exposed, as does Transnet’s solution to the unreliable old pipeline: pump more oil through a brand new pipeline traversing former KwaZulu bantustan areas and South Durban neighborhoods inhabited by mainly low-income black people.

That New Multi-Products Pipeline (NMPP) — whose piping was completed three years ago but which still awaits two new pump stations to reach full capacity — suffered huge delays and overruns, raising the cost from the initial estimate of $550 million in 2006 to $1.98 billion at last count.

In September 2007, even Transnet’s oft-praised CEO Maria Ramos had estimated the final cost at just $950 million, less than half of what it would balloon to within a matter of three years after the route change through South Durban. Because different petroleum products (unleaded petrol, diesel and jet fuel) move through it, this was a complex pipe to lay out over 544 kilometers. It has been called the world’s largest pipeline of its kind.

As for timing, the new pipeline and pumping stations were meant to be completed by 2010 so the line running through Hillcrest should have been decommissioned, but April 2015 is Transnet’s latest target date. One reason for missing deadline after deadline is that dozens of kilometers were added by detouring through black residential areas.

The rerouting was done with excessive haste, resulting in an intense critique from SDCEA in 2008. Confirming SDCEA’s predictions, former Minister of Public Enterprises Malusi Gigaba conceded in parliament last April that Transnet’s management of the new pipeline project suffered “unsatisfactory safety performance, poor environmental compliance, insufficient quality controls, and inadequate control and supervision.”

Earlier, in December 2012 after an investigation, Gigaba admitted that “Transnet Capital Projects lacked sufficient capacity and depth of experience for the client overview of a megaproject of this complexity. There was an inadequate analysis of risks. Transnet’s obligations on the project such as securing authorizations — Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), land acquisition for right of way, water and wetland permits — were not pursued with sufficient foresight and vigor.”

In 2008 when the new pipeline design was approved, Transnet’s ‘systematic failings’ (in Gigaba’s words) were overseen by Minister of Public Enterprises Alec Erwin, a man who just four years earlier had won endorsement from Foreign Affairs journal (the voice of the US establishment) to become the World Trade Organization’s director-general, and by Ramos, who a year later was named by Fortune magazine as 9th most powerful woman in the world and who now leads the country’s second largest bank (Barclays’ subsidiary Absa).

In other words, this wasn’t rank incompetence, it was systemic eco-social abuse by some of South Africa’s leading (neoliberal) public officials.

Neither Erwin, Ramos or others overseeing Transnet addressed widespread collusion by construction companies during tendering by one of the main Durban-Johannesburg pipeline beneficiaries, Group Five Civil Engineering. Many Transnet projects suffered unjustifiable 50% mark-ups thanks to the now notorious collusion. Corporate abuse of this sort affects the entire society, even the rich.

Indeed, the scene of the latest crime is Hillcrest’s Greenvale Village gated complex, built after 1965, under which the Transnet pipeline crossed in spite of servitudes dating back years. Greenvale boasts comfortable mansions, and one reason for their desirability is the proximity (within 3 kilometers) of some of Durban’s finest schools. This mink, Merc and manure belt, stretching along two highways from Assagay to Kloof, is truly a site of local ruling-class reproduction, just as much as Umhlanga, Durban North and Glenwood.

It was in places like this, SDCEA uncannily predicted in 2008, that Transnet’s carelessness would become obvious: “There is no emergency plan available regarding the existing pipeline so those living along its route have no way of knowing how to respond to an emergency or accident… There may be people living along the path of the existing pipeline who do not know it is there, what it may be doing to their land and water, and what to do if the aging structure bursts.”

In this bastion of smug wealth, the center-right Democratic Alliance opposition political party is popular. Its eloquent local municipal councilor, Rick Crouch, appears aggressive in defending local interests. As he explained to The Mercury, “More than a year ago we addressed the issue with Transnet. They took me on an inspection in loco to show me how safe it was to have a pipeline near residential homes. I still had my doubts.”

Transnet’s serial carelessness

As well he should (though Crouch apparently kept them to himself), for Transnet was responsible for related disasters in 1998 and 2013. Ramos’ celebrated endorsement of corporatization apparently allowed managers to short-change broader social and ecological considerations. As an insider source told The Witness: “This is not the first time this has happened. Within close proximity to the previous rupture site, the pipe had burst [in 1998] and they were warned of operating the line at high pressure. History repeats itself.”

In 2013, now rusting badly in parts, the same pipeline leaked 300 000 liters on a dairy farm an hour west of Hillcrest. The incident was allegedly covered up by Transnet, but revealed the weakness of piping that was punctured by a farmworker ploughing the land. Remarked Bobby Peek, director of one of the country’s leading environmental NGOs, groundWork, “The fact that it took Transnet Pipelines three hours to arrest the flow of fuel from the rupture was an indictment on their ability to safely monitor their systems and act promptly in an emergency.”

In contrast, brags a government website, “Transnet Pipelines continually monitors the integrity of its pipeline network. Internal inspection tools, known as Intelligent Pigs, are valuable devices for this work. They make use of the magnetic stray flux principle to determine and record possible areas of metal loss from corrosion or any other cause. The results of the most recent Intelligent Pig survey of the network indicate that the pipelines, which are methodically protected against electrolytic corrosion, are in a generally good condition.”

Right then, blame pipeline rot on what must have been a litter of rather Unintelligent Pigs.

The main merit of Transnet’s new oil pipeline is that far fewer truckloads of petrol and diesel are now being transported by truck. The new pipeline more than doubles the oil-transit capacity, because it uses 24-inch diameter size piping (double the old pipeline’s width), and has a much stronger pumping system that, with much greater pressure possible, can triple the amount Johannesburg receives per year compared to the line that burst in Hillcrest.

As for the overcapacity now evident in the two Durban-Johannesburg oil pipelines now operating together, the main official in the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) responsible, Rod Crompton, also criticized Transnet for not understanding why petrol pipeline volumes soon began to fall: “This is a concern in view of the new pipeline capacity that Transnet has brought into operation.”

Transnet argues it must now charge customers vast increases to cover the new pipeline costs, and in March 2014 requested a 20% increase in overall revenue for the coming year. Crompton only awarded a 5% rise. This was not unusual, for in 2009, Transnet had requested a 74% pipeline-tariff increase but Nersa instead told it to cut tariffs by 10%.

However, it should be evident that the entire system needs rejigging, for as SDCEA pointed out back in 2008, “The cost of petroleum does not truly reflect the environmental costs and the increase in availability of petroleum does not reflect diminishing supplies that can be anticipated over time. As a non-renewable finite resource, petroleum supplies will only decrease and their costs will rise as a larger population struggles to share less and less of it. The availability of petroleum today should reflect its limited life-span as a fuel source.”

Even though oil prices fell 40% in 2014, the application of full-cost accounting to cover climate change and local pollution is long overdue. But this kind of logical response appears far beyond Crompton’s and the South African state’s conceptual capacity.

After the Hillcrest blowout, another critical question concerns the safety of the new pipeline — with its dozens of extra kilometers traversing the southern part of Durban — since so many people live alongside its path. As Peek remarked after the latest spill, “Now the residents of South Durban have the new pipeline next to their houses. In Hillcrest, the pipes pass through big gardens and are quite far from the houses, but in Umbumbulu it is literally next to the houses, on people’s doorsteps.”

Back in 1965, when the original Durban-Johannesburg oil pipeline was commissioned, the “dirty steel” used had “sulphur inclusions” and also suffered weld defects including “fatigue crack growth and preferential corrosion of seam weld.” Transnet commissioned an investigation into the pipeline by “international experts” who “confirmed the multiple inherent defect phenomena of the pre-1970 pipe used and recommended replacement.”

If so, given the excess capacity in the new pipeline, why was the old pipeline still being used on December 23? The first diesel began flowing through the NMPP in January 2012, but failure to build two final pumping stations — in the case of the Durban harbor station, because of tank buckling — kept the pipe’s throughput at just 50% of capacity, requiring ongoing use of the old line.

Transnet apparently received word from pipeline managers that there was no problem with the existing pipeline. As even PricewaterhouseCooper infrastructure expert Georg Hofmeyr told the Financial Mail a year ago, in the magazine’s words, “An assessment of the original pipeline revealed that it was in better condition than originally thought.” Oops.

In its 2008 EIA filing against the new Transnet pipeline, SDCEA offered several critiques, including of a re-routing “suspiciously reminiscent of the environmental racism we in South Durban have become familiar with,” inadequate public participation; dubious motivations for the pipeline; government’s failure to prevent, detect or manage pipeline leaks; and climate change. According to SDCEA, “The pipeline threatens people with potentially severe environmental safety and health problems (well known to refinery victims in South Durban), in a manner that is discriminatory along class and racial lines.”

Global-scale pollution was also noted by SDCEA in 2008: “The rise of CO2 emissions that will be facilitated by the pipeline is immense, and is only referred to in the [EIA] Draft Scoping Report as a potential legal problem, with no details provided.” Three years later, at the end of 2011, SDCEA was the main local host for activists during the United Nations COP17 climate summit and its leader Desmond D’Sa led the march of 10 000 to protest what was termed the “Conference of Polluters.”

Increasing supply and redirecting the pipeline — or reducing demand?

As SDCEA complained in 2008, “We do not believe that Transnet should be rewarded by being allowed to install a new pipeline when they are unable to properly manage their existing one.” What, then, should have happened in early 2008, as Transnet prepared its final pipeline proposal and as load-shedding first hit South Africa?

In 2005, a serious petrol shortage hit Johannesburg — but instead of promoting economic sanity, resource conservation and public transport, the result was greater pressure for supply enhancement.

In early 2008, there were two routes forward:

  • first, reconsider the costs of Johannesburg’s status as the most industrialized mega-city in Africa, and therefore decentralize new economic activity so as to better distribute future populations closer to the availability of resources such as water; or
  • second, simply continue to promote limitless consumption, suburban sprawl, the Sandton financial district’s growth (as Johannesburg’s economic motor) and other forms of maldevelopment, by ‘”upply enhancement.”

That would entail mega-projects to provide Johannesburg consumers with more electricity (from three new coal-fired power plants), water (through new Lesotho dams) and transport (the OR Tambo Airport expansion, the Gautrain fast train, the e-tolled highways and a new bus system).

Since the second option was chosen, the next question was whether the largest single Transnet infrastructure project up to that point, the new pipeline, should cross the paths of rich white homeowners and farmers, or instead, poor black residents under the thumb of local ethnic rulers and ruling-party politicians.

Out of white sight

The latter route was chosen. One reason was vocal opposition to new digging along (or nearby) the existing pipeline servitude, termed the Northern Corridor. Near Hillcrest, according to Transnet’s Zitholele consultancy, “Assagay landowners expressed grave concerns” because “The likely construction damage and nuisance impact on the Northern Corridor is considered to be severe in the Assagay area as a result of the sensitivity of equestrian businesses to disruption.” (The 1% elites need their horses!)

One of the most effective Hillcrest activists was Lilian Develing, who headed the Combined Ratepayers’ Association in Durban. She was quoted as warning that Transnet’s existing pipeline developed underground leaks: “These took some time to discover, causing damage to grazing, and animals had to be moved.”

Other reasons Zitholele gave for routing the pipeline through a Southern Corridor included ecological, agricultural and public open space. Yet just outside Durban, the existing servitude on one long section of the old pipeline — from Merrivale to Cedar’s Post through Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve — is being used for the larger pipe, apparently without any such concerns.

The privileged Assagay-Hillcrest community’s NIMBY strategy was apparently the key factor. As Peek argued in the wake of the December 2014 spill, “Hillcrest residents did not want the new pipeline in their area, so they fought it and Transnet decided to move it.”

Along with Peek, D’Sa was a recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize for activism (in 1998 and 2014, respectively), and in an interview this week he too was fuming: “White monopoly capital had a huge influence in the new pipeline’s placement. Even in South Durban, for the majority of white people living here, the pipeline goes nowhere near their houses.”

But, he added, local black collaborators helped Transnet get permission: “The ANC councilors and chiefs in the areas affected by the new pipeline also sold out. They told everyone it would create jobs there. The councilors blocked us even talking to the people there. They were gatekeepers. They also need to be blamed. And other NGOs taking money from Transnet should also be held accountable.”


There was a bit of resistance in South Durban, to be sure. In August 2010, the black community of Adams Mission briefly resisted Transnet’s 11-page temporary servitude agreement and an ‘angry resident’ complained about the construction: “Our houses are beginning to crack because of the constant digging Transnet must take their pipes and find an alternate route far from our homes.”

The Adams Mission residents were advised by SDCEA, which in turn is developing pressure against Transnet, including a threat of a financial sanctions campaign due to its $25 billion port-petrochemical expansion in South Durban based on a new port at the old Durban airport site.

SDCEA also made these recommendations, ignored by Transnet: “Accelerating the upgrade of railways and public transport in Johannesburg, so as to get more people and product off the roads to minimize transport-related congestion, fuel burning, emissions and associated health effects.”

Indeed if, as Naomi Klein argues about climate change, This Changes Everything, then policy elites and community activists alike should be properly preparing for a post-carbon future. The appropriate narrative is then to question our overconsumption of fossil fuels, especially via an overpriced and dangerous pipeline whose long delay in construction resulted in the use of the existing pipe beyond its lifespan.

What has been missing from the oil spill crisis media coverage here — and in most places similar struggles encounter NIMBY logic — is the need not for “an alternative route far from our homes” (of whatever race or class orientation) but instead a different economic and transport strategy not so reliant upon fossil fuels. Instead of supply enhancement, demand-side management would create a conservation ethos, but one conscious of the need to combat the eco-racism Transnet still appears to suffer.

Instead of NIMBY, the new call-out is simply NOPE — Not On Planet Earth.

(Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society and is author of Politics of Climate Justice.)