Disaster as illegal miners dig underground tunnel beneath Joburg, fuel and gas pipes could explode

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Illegal miners have brought Johannesburg, SA’s biggest city, to the brink of an unprecedented disaster — and the government has shrugged off calls by city officials to step in and avert potential catastrophe.

Transnet and Sasol have sounded the alarm that zama zamas are blasting to within metres of highly flammable gas and fuel lines under Johannesburg. Should one of those lines be damaged, experts say, everything within a 300m radius will be “incinerated”.

Key parts of the city are also under threat of collapse due to the 140km labyrinth of new and existing tunnels that illegal miners are digging or blasting beneath the city. These include the M1 double-decker highway and the M2, sections of Soweto and the 94,000-seat FNB Stadium.

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“The city faces a disaster beyond imagination,” said Johannesburg’s Infrastructure Protection Unit head Conel Mackay, who sits on the Gauteng Illegal Mining Stakeholders Forum.

He told Sunday Times this week: “If there is a rupture at FNB Stadium, which has gas pipelines running past it, it and the homes around it are gone.

“Transnet pipeline inspectors have found several near misses, especially in Florida and Riverlea. In some places miners were 30cm from striking the pipes. Miners are using explosives near the Langlaagte fuel depot.”

The national government appears to have done little to address the issue. Over the past year, Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba has sent several letters to the national departments of mineral resources (DMR) and co-operative governance & traditional affairs (Cogta), highlighting the crisis. He said they have not responded.

Several meetings have been held with provincial Cogta officials, but no plan has been discussed. The pipelines provide SA’s economic hub with petrol, diesel and oil from Durban and gas from Mozambique.

“God forbid something happens because the disaster management teams will stand no chance in trying to control it,” said Mashaba.

He and his officials were alerted to the situation last year by Transnet and Sasol. The city activated technical task teams and disaster management, and alerted the DMR and Cogta because “the city does not have the competency to deal with illegal mining activities or the disasters they create”.

“For a year we have pleaded for assistance and asked for plans on what is being done to mitigate this looming catastrophe, but we have been ignored. It is not if a disaster will strike, but when. Johannesburg is a ticking time bomb. The disaster zones are massive. Our officials can seize explosives and confiscate gold, but they don’t have skills to stop illegal mining,” Mashaba said.

He said if the government did not act, the city will approach the courts to compel it to.

A Sunday Times team that visited Florida, an illegal mining hotspot, this week found miners were within 1m of breaking into Transnet’s petrol pipeline with picks. One miner, Orlando Mathuse, who was mining alongside the pipe, said the illegal miners were not afraid.

“We know it’s there, but we will miss it. If it bursts it won’t be that bad. I am here because there is no other work. I get paid R420 for a gram of gold, which takes me two days to mine,” he said.

But Mackay said a blast would be catastrophic.

“If a fuel depot blows, the blast radius would be several kilometres.”

He said illegal miners tunnelling underneath the M1 double-decker highway, the M2 highway and FNB Stadium were also jeopardising the structures. He said the city had been referred to the illegal-mining forum to raise its concerns, but the forum had sat only once this year. “It met in March, when I spoke out about the dangers. Since then we have never met again,” he said.

Francois Malan, Transnet’s Gauteng pipeline servitude supervisor, said the pipelines were structurally sound, but they were not resistant to ground shifts from tunnel collapses or explosions, “which are increasing”.

“Two months ago during a patrol I heard four underground explosions in Riverlea, near Transnet’s Langlaagte fuel delivery site. If the pipes are breached it will be a disaster, with major infrastructural damage,” he said.

Transnet pipelines spokesperson Saret Knoetze said the situation was concerning, with illegal mining activities increasing along the pipelines.

“The problem is, with the pipes and majority of the miners being underground, one doesn’t know how close they are to the infrastructure.”

Knoetze said Transnet conducted foot and helicopter patrols of the pipeline areas.

Sasol spokesperson Alex Anderson said illegal mining posed a credible threat to its pipeline. He said the gas carried in the pipe was a highly flammable methane-rich gas and that a spark could set off a potentially lethal explosion. Even if the gas does not catch alight, people could still potentially asphyxiate if they are in confined spaces.

The DMR failed to respond to specific questions but said the illegal-mining forum, which included the government and municipalities, met once a month.

“It reports to the National Co-ordination Strategic Management Team, which co-ordinates the government’s efforts to fight illegal mining. The City of Johannesburg is encouraged to actively and regularly participate in the forum meetings, as they have done in the past,” it said.

Musa Zondi, spokesperson for Cogta minister Zweli Mkhize, said they had found a record of a letter from Mashaba to previous minister Des van Rooyen.

“The minister is concerned about illegal mining,” he said, and would soon be meeting the Minerals Council SA.

Gauteng Cogta spokesperson Lebo Keswa said the MEC met regularly with city officials and had done so twice this month.

Minerals Council SA spokesperson Charmane Russell said there were “no immediate or easy solutions”. She said the problem often lay in the way in which illegal miners — using explosives and earth-moving equipment — gained access to the shafts.

“We hold regular engagements in exploring the challenges and what can be done about it,” she said.

Explosives expert Deon Stidwell, a former police bomb-disposal technician, said the biggest danger was from the gas pipes. “Within milliseconds the area surrounding a rupture will be consumed by fire, with everything in the immediate vicinity incinerated and the explosion causing severe structural damage,” he said.

Tshepo Motlhale, Joburg disaster management divisional chief, said they were concerned about how rapidly illegal mining had spread through the city.

– Sunday times


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