Sipho Mabena

By Sipho Mabena

Premium Journalist

Transnet’s big oil heist: Over 3 million litres of fuel stolen this year alone

Five people have burned to death while trying to steal fuel carried by a high-pressure Transnet pipeline from the coast to the inland.

Theft from Transnet’s bulk fuel pipeline network traversing five provinces has reached crisis levels, with at least 3 million litres of fuel stolen in 50 incidents this year alone.

In April, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan revealed that fuel worth almost R250 million has been stolen from the state-owned rail, logistics, port and pipeline company since March 2019.

At least five people have since burnt to death while trying to steal petroleum products, including diesel, petrol, jet fuel, and crude oil carried by the pipeline from the coast to the inland.

Clandestine depot

Last week, Transnet Pipelines’ tactical security teams uncovered a secret, makeshift fuel depot in eMalahleni in Mpumalanga, with an elaborate tunnelling system complete with pipes sucking fuel from the nearby Transnet’s Kendal-Witbank pipeline.

High walls were built on the vacant piece of land to conceal a tunnel leading to the petroleum pipeline, with associated infrastructure built to steal petroleum products.

It is not clear how long the structure, which has since been demolished, has been operating or who was behind the operation, as no one was found on the property.

Mpumalanga provincial police spokesperson Colonel Donald Mdhluli said they have launched a manhunt for suspects for tampering with, or damaging essential infrastructure in connection with the incident.

“A structure was discovered as well, however the owner thereof is unknown at this stage and a probe will also look into that. No one has been arrested as yet and police urge anyone with information that can assist in the investigation…,” he said.

Transnet’s pipelines spanning 3,114km from KwaZulu-Natal to North West carry about 16 billion litres of petroleum products, including diesel, petrol, aviation turbine fuel and crude oil from the coast to the inland market each year.

Transnet has lamented that the tampering and damage to the pipeline because of theft continues to remain the biggest threat to the security of fuel supply, particularly to the inland areas that account for over 60% of the demand.

A potentially explosive problem

The tampering with high pressure petroleum pipeline poses a danger to nearby communities, as it could result in explosions, placing perpetrators and nearby communities at risk.

In December 2019, firefighters battled for hours to contain a fire caused by an attempt to steal fuel from a block valve on Transnet’s Durban-Johannesburg petroleum pipeline between Alrode and Airport in Alberton, Ekurhuleni.

Transnet chief executive Michelle Phillips said it was encouraging that security, surveillance and tactical response measures to deal with the scourge were yielding positive results. 

She said joint operations with law enforcement agencies, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), and private security companies have resulted in 150 arrests, as well as the impounding of 49 vehicles, 66 tankers, and 58 trucks.

Phillips said these arrests averted a serious disaster, as tampering with the high-pressure petroleum pipelines and associated infrastructure could lead to disastrous consequences, including personal injuries and fatalities, extensive environmental damage and fire.

“Transnet continues to urge all petroleum retailers and members of the public to refrain from buying fuel from unregistered traders, to curb the demand for illegal petroleum products and to join in the fight against petroleum theft,” she said.

Phillips urged members of the public to report any suspicious activity, bakkies, tankers, or activity near the company’s infrastructure.

In January, two men died an excruciating death when the Transnet pipeline they were allegedly trying to steal fuel from exploded in Kendal, near Phola, in Mpumalanga.

Transnet’s control room had detected a fuel pressure drop on the pipeline and upon inspection, it was discovered that the men had connected a generator to a valve on the pipeline to siphon diesel.

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eMalahleni Transnet