Fuel leak threatens govt buildings

HARARE - A massive fuel leak suspected to be from an aging underground fuel storage facility at CMED in Harare has prompted key government and city buildings to be evacuated around the citadel of State power, officials confirmed yesterday.

The leak is among the “largest scale” fuel emergencies the capital city has faced, with officials warning there was danger to key local buildings, including the President’s Office and Parliament, if the leak was not urgently fixed.

Investigators discovered fuel leaking into an underground sanitary sewer that runs below key government buildings, including the Supreme Court, Parliament building, Pax House, Harare Magistrates’ Courts Civil and Customary Law building, Controller and Auditor-General’s office, the headquarters of government tax collector Zimra; Tanganyika House, which houses the intelligence, the Defence House building, and the President’s Office.

The underground leak also bears risks that are substantial enough to affect nearby private enterprises such as Old Mutual Life Centre, Zimoco, Beverley Court, Ambassador Hotel and ZB Bank.

Seven separate State agencies were deployed to track, monitor and help stop the industry-made fuel gusher, as authorities rushed to shut down area businesses.

The emergency response was being handled by the Joint Operations Command — a think-tank of top security agencies.

There were mounting fears the major leak from the underground fuel storage sites could cause explosions and groundwater contamination which could threaten communities by leaking  toxins into drinking water supplies and businesses.

This also comes as experts warned that toxic materials such as petrol and oil contain dangerous substances, including benzene, toluene and heavy metals, that can cause cancer.

Authorities were racing yesterday to probe or repair the leak, prompting a response from the Fire and Rescue Services Department, Environmental Management Agency (Ema), Zinara, police and the President’s Office, who cordoned off the area around Parliament after buildings were evacuated as a precaution.

The massive leak illustrates the grave environmental and safety hazards that come with operating fuel storage fields in the city centre, experts said.

“We got some pretty high readings,” an official who declined to be named said of the fuel levels.

“We have had minor (fuel leaks) happen, but this is probably the largest scale I have seen in the area. The readings were high enough they got our attention and we reacted based on those.”

There were fears the underground tanks at CMED had failed but authorities shut down independent petrol stations operated by Total along Nelson Mandela Avenue and the Zuva Service Station at the intersection of Fourth Street and Samora Machel Avenue.

Curiously, the CMED Service Station next to Defence House continued to serve fuel to government vehicles, despite being seen as posing the major potential health and environmental risks.

Firefighters could smell the strong odour of fuel emanating from the sewer system.

Harare City Council spokesperson Michael Chideme said the city’s various emergency response units were on high alert, but declined to comment further, directing all questions to the police.

“Once anything has been reported to the police they are the ones who give the official position,” he said.

Police spokesperson Charity Charamba said investigations were underway; adding the sealing-off of roads was no reason for panic.

“Every scene is sealed off during an investigation like there is now, there is no reason for panic,” she said.

“These are the initial investigations. So far, I cannot give you anything concrete.”

Asked if indeed there was a massive underground fuel leak, she said: “Well, that is still be ascertained, as I have said we will give you information once we have it.”

Officials said the CMED service station had tanks that are 40-50 years old lying underground, “and because they are ‘out of sight, out of mind’, regular maintenance can be overlooked”.

Representatives of the Ema arrived at the scene yesterday morning and were yet to determine the source of the leak.

While, Ema spokesperson Steady Kangata was not taking calls from the Daily News yesterday, one agency official said it is “too scary to think about.”

“It is a simple fact that CMED underground tanks built in the colonial era are still operating with at least some of their original steel tanks,” the official said.

“The risk of an underground steel tank failing is a function of time.

“And while there are many factors such as soil acidity, presence of groundwater, cathodic protection and its maintenance, de-watering practices and more, it is fair to say that a 50+ year steel tank represents a risk of failure too great to be ignored,” he said.

The potential failure of underground storage tanks and lines is a “ticking time bomb”, he said.

An official at Total Service Station along Nelson Mandela Avenue rejected accusations that the fuel was leaking from their station, saying “our reconciliation records, systems or technologies do not show apparent losses.”

“If there is a leak, ... periods of zero sales must show apparent losses, often associated with deliveries, but this is not the case,” said a Total supervisor who declined to be named, saying he was not authorised to speak to the press.

“We don’t understand why they shut us down, a move that has caused us to lose business, but I presume it’s a precautionary measure.”

The reported leak comes after an inexplicable explosion was reported on Monday at Harare Club Chambers, a popular meeting place in the capital for former liberation struggle fighters.

Officials said soil and water samples underground indicated the presence of fuel, pointing to a possible leak at the fuel main composed of decades-old cast iron.

But pipeline explosion experts cautioned the latest findings offered no conclusive evidence that an underground fuel pipe leak was the cause of the explosion at Harare Club Chambers.

Police blocked off entrances, with one official calling the response a good “group effort”.

He said the high fuel readings in the water underground were enough of a concern that there was the potential for “some kind of reaction” if the fuel were ignited.

The official said “testing continues with no significant findings as of now”.

Forensic analysis could help determine how long the leak has been there.

Either way, it may be a while before the public has full answers.


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