This article first appeared in Moneyweb.
Last week a gang of more than 40 suspected cable thieves overwhelmed security guards and made their way down the 127 metre shaft where they set about cutting copper cable underground.
They previously cut the main power supply to the mine, so the giant fans blowing air into the underground working areas were disabled. This fatal mistake allowed methane gas to accumulate, resulting in an explosion that has trapped 22 miners and hindered rescue efforts due to the continued presence of poisonous carbon monoxide. Five bodies have since been recovered, and one person was rescued alive.
Gloria Coal Mine is one of the former Gupta-owned mines now under business rescue. This was no isolated hit by the gang, says the business rescue practitioner, Mike Elliot. “Several mines in the area have been targeted by copper theft gangs, including Optimum Coal Mine.”
Last year Optimum, another formerly Gupta-owned mine now in business rescue, was temporarily disabled when overhead cables supplying power to trains transporting coal from the mine were cut. Optimum had to replace the cables at a cost of more than R3 million. On another occasion, dragline cables on coal excavators were cut up for sale on the black market. Each time the gangs hit a coal mine in Mpumalanga, production is disrupted. Louis Klopper, business rescue representative for Optimum Coal Mine, says the mines are surrounded by farms, making it easy for thieves to disappear once the police are called.
What is unusual about the Mpumalanga cable thieves is their level of organisation.
Mine security poses no resistance to a gang of 40 or more thieves wielding guns and clubs.
Cable theft has become increasingly sophisticated, and mines are plumb targets given the tonnage of cable and scrap metal that a single hit can yield.
The scale of vandalism and theft at Gloria, reckoned to be costing the mine around R100 million, will put it out of operation for several weeks. Gloria mine has been hit by gangs operating in this area several times. This time they cut the main overhead power cables, stripped the main transformers on the surface, cut the buzz bars from the mine switchgear and cut cables from the windings.
“Once we can connect power cables to the fans, we will be able to resume rescue efforts,” adds Elliot. This will flush poisonous gases from the underground working areas, and allow rescue workers to access the area where the explosion occurred in their search for any survivors.
An easy sell
Stolen copper reportedly fetches about R70 per kilogram on the black market, and getting rid of it seems to pose no problem to the thieves. Recent amendments to the Second Hand Goods Act were intended to tighten regulation of second hand goods dealers, and obliges them to maintain detailed registers of clients. If a dealer has reasonable suspicion they are being offered stolen goods, or the goods have been tampered with, they are required to notify the police.
Elliot says the rampant cable theft among coal mines in Mpumalanga is proof that the law is inadequate. “The thieves are able to sell the stolen cable to scrap merchants, so the law is being bypassed. It needs much stronger enforcement before we see an improvement in the situation.”
Export regulations have also been amended to prevent the export of stolen scrap metal, but these are also being flouted.
Rescue efforts were hampered at Gloria mine as unpaid mine workers prevented rescue workers from reaching the site of the explosion. Workers last received payment in October, but an announcement regarding the sale of the mines under business rescue is expected next week. Gloria mine is now under heavy police guard.