Eskom was at a loss after coal scientist’s suspension

The 32-month suspension of late coal scientist Mark van der Riet compromised Eskom’s efforts to avoid the adverse effects of poor quality coal on the country’s electricity supply, the Zondo commission of inquiry heard on Tuesday.

Before hearing the testimony of acting general manager for Eskom’s primary energy division, Dan Mashigo, evidence leader advocate Kate Hofmeyr indicated that Van der Riet submitted a statement to the commission shortly before his death.

His statement, implicating Eskom’s former head of generation Matshela Koko in efforts to circumvent process in the testing of dodgy coal from Tegeta’s Brakfontein mine, was submitted into evidence.

Mashigo’s testimony on Tuesday dealt with Eskom’s controversial 2015 coal contract with Gupta-owned Tegeta’s Brakfontein mine. Hofmeyr asked Mashigo if Van der Riet’s suspension had a negative impact on Eskom’s efforts to monitor coal quality.

The loss of Van der Riet’s expertise meant that Eskom’s project to enhance their quality assurance controls and avoid malfeasance by mines lost traction, Mashigo said.

In February 2015, Van der Riet and 25 other experts were asked by Eskom to determine whether there was a link between poor quality coal and the energy crisis. But months later Van der Riet was suspended by Koko.

Van der Riet and Charlotte Ramavhona, a senior laboratory services manager, were suspended in September 2015 after conflicting lab results raised concerns about the quality of coal Eskom received from Brakfontein mine.

According to national treasury’s 2018 report on allegations of corruption at Eskom, in August 2015 Tegeta raised a dispute on Brakfontein’s coal sample based on coal analysis results which were reported by Sibonisiwe coal laboratory between August 23 and August 25 2015.

Sibonisiwe‘s initial coal analysis indicated that Brakfontein’s disputed coal did not comply with the quality requirements of Tegeta’s coal supply agreement with Eskom.

Eskom appointed another laboratory, the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) to conduct re-tests on samples that were previously tested by Sibonisiwe.

Van der Riet told treasury’s investigators that on August 28 2015, Koko informed him that he and Ramavhona should resample the Brakfontein disputed stockpiles at SABS.

On the same day the pair were scheduled to observe the resampling process at Brakfontein mine, Koko called and informed him that Brakfontein requested Eskom to cancel the scheduled visit, Van der Riet told treasury.

According to the treasury report, Van der Riet said he informed Koko that Brakfontein’s request was suspicious because the resampling of the disputed stockpiles needed to be observed by Eskom’s representatives.

Van der Riet alleged that Koko told him that Eskom would insist that they observe Brakfontein’s sampling process the following week.

Koko told treasury that he was not aware that Van der Riet and Ramavhona were scheduled to visit Brakfontein mine to witness the resampling process. According to the treasury report, Koko further stated that had he been aware of such a visit, he would have supported it.

On August 29, SABS found that the coal was fit for purpose. In his statement to the commission, Van der Riet said he could not vouch for the authenticity of the SABS findings.

According to Van der Riet, he and his team were asked to investigate the matter further and, on September 1 2015, he reported to Eskom’s then senior general manager of primary fuel Vusi Mboweni’s office to hand over the investigation file. But Mboweni instead handed Van der Riet his suspension letter.

Koko temporarily suspended the controversial coal contract, but on September 5 notified Tegeta that the suspension had been lifted.

Van der Riet was allowed to return to work in May 2018, after Eskom reviewed the findings of his disciplinary hearing.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.
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