Company says it was given permission to take water from hydrants to fight fires at dump

In the absence of answers from Ndlambe Municipality, private company Mphele Engineers has come forward to explain its use of municipal fire hydrants – it says it was to fight fires at the dump.

Mphele Engineers operational manager Christopher Els

A Mphele Engineers bakkie with a small tank on the back had been photographed by residents taking water from a fire hydrant in Atherstone Road on several occasions over the past few weeks, and was also seen taking water from a hydrant in Bank Lane.

Residents who have been frustrated with water shortages wondered how it was possible for a private company to extract water from a fire hydrant. Some suspected water theft.

Mphele Engineers was identified as the company which was recently awarded a R16-million contract by the municipality to manage its landfill sites.

As the municipality had appointed Mphele Engineers, Talk of the Town sent queries to municipal officials, including infrastructure director Noluthando Vithi, her deputy Sipho Babama, water services manager Onke Sopela, municipal manager Rolly Dumezweni and spokesperson Cecil Mbolekwa.

We asked:

  1. What rights does Mphele Engineers have to use that hydrant?
  2. What is Mphele Engineers using the water for?
  3. If they have municipal permission, why did the driver behave as if he was caught in the act of doing something wrong?

The only answer we received was from Sopela, who said: “I will make a follow up on this issue of water theft by this company.”

On Thursday Mphele Engineers operational manager Christopher Els visited TotT to explain their use of the hydrants.

“We have been fighting fires the entire weekend,” an exasperated Els said. “I and my team have been working around the clock.”

He said he received a message about the first fire at the Port Alfred dump at 1am on Friday. “We needed help from the fire department, but they were busy. The fire department could only send a fire truck on Sunday.”

He acknowledged there had been fires at the dump before last weekend, and Mphele Engineers had been getting water from the hydrants before then. “We got the keys to all the fire hydrants from [community protection services] director Booysen-Willy,” he said.

He said Mphele Engineers had used all the hydrants around town on previous occasions, but favoured the one in Atherstone Road because it was the only one that could be closed properly without leaking.

In addition to fighting fires with water, Els said they used a TLB and tipper truck to smother the flames with soil.

He suspected the fires had been lit deliberately. “The fires were set at every level,” he said, explaining that waste had been sorted into various levels, separating commercial waste from garden waste, and covering each level with a layer of soil.

“To fight it [the fire] you have to open up the waste, spray it and close it up with soil, which is now damp,” he said.

“The majority of fires at the dump are arson,” he said. He said Mphele Engineers had access control at the dump but it was “physically impossible” to keep out the people who live off the landfill site, sifting whatever they can use from the refuse.

“If we chase them off site, they retaliate, and the next day your site is burning down.”

He also said there was already ill feeling about Mphele Engineers having won the tender to manage the landfill sites.

“We’ve been getting so much resistance. Everyone sees an appointment as political – everything is political in this town. I don’t know why we have so many enemies here.”

Els said they had taking to hiring a security guard every night, but in the long term had placed an advert inviting quotations for fire monitoring and security services at the Port Alfred and Alexandria landfill sites for a three-year contract.

“We want to get the right people for the job,” he said.

“We really try to be a team player for the community. We have helped the SPCA and the community with a TLB to dig graves. In future our company is willing to help sponsor a TLB for the SPCA,” he said.

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