/ 14 December 2006

Acsa charged following disastrous airport fuel spill

After months of threats since a series of fuel spills happened at OR Tambo International Airport, the Environmental and Conservation Association has finally pressed charges against the Airports Company South Africa (Acsa), the association said on Thursday.

The association has compiled three separate dockets against Acsa for criminal negligence after three fuel leaks, accounting for almost two million litres of fuel, spilled into a protected wetland close to the airport.

”The criminal neglect charges were particularly fuelled by the spillage of 1,2-million litres of jet fuel, which flowed through a storm-water drain into the Blaauwpan dam, a protected wetland about a kilometre downstream,” said Environmental and Conservation Association spokesperson Nicole Barlow.

The incident happened on November 6 this year, forcing some flights to be delayed for up to two hours.

By the morning of November 7, a team of employees from pump company Rapid Allweiler, which was hired by Acsa, was working hard to build a temporary dam wall to block fuel from streaming into the dam. The team also pumped fuel out of the dam and took it to a recycling facility.

But, according to Barlow, since then fuel has contaminated dam water to a depth of 1,5m and seeped into 4 000 to 5 000 cubic metres of soil.

”In 10 years, ecologists will still be feeling the effects of this spill. You can’t dig out the whole dam. Between 4 000 and 5 000 cubic metres of soil have been polluted,” she said.

Other spillages occurred on September 25 this year and in July last year.

”Three dockets were opened in Kempton Park and Acsa was charged under section 151 of the National Water Act 36 of 1998,” said Barlow. Eleven employees of Acsa, including MD Monhla Hlahla, have been charged.

Acsa spokesperson Solomon Makgale told the Mail & Guardian Online on Thursday that at the time of the November spill, Acsa had taken every possible remedial action to minimise its operational and environmental impact. ”We are not in any way negligent, so if we are taken to court, we will defend ourselves,” he said.

”The Act allows for employees and directors within an organisation to be charged individually with criminal negligence,” Barlow said, adding that the Act stipulates that ”no person may unlawfully and intentionally or negligently commit any act or omission which pollutes or is likely to pollute a water source”.

Acsa’s environmental manager, Musa Dlamini, told the M&G Online last week that it could take years to rehabilitate the Blaauwpan Dam, and it could ”cost millions”.

The leak started inside a newly installed valve chamber, situated on the section of the airport’s tarmac where aeroplanes park, but Acsa is still investigating the cause.

”Nobody can say whose fault it was. The gasket [part of the valve that connects two flanges together] could have been faulty from manufacturing. There are so many things to put in place: there’s the technician, there’s the support, the contractors,” Dlamini had said. ”I can’t imagine how such a thing could happen … it’s a new installation.”

Barlow did not know when the Acsa employees would appear in court. ”The investigating officer is still collecting information and once he is done, the matter will be handed over to a Kempton Park Magistrate’s Court prosecutor.”

The Environmental and Conservation Association is the second organisation to charge Acsa for negligence, following similar action by water-quality management — part of the Gauteng department of water affairs and forestry.