Our Burning Planet


More late changes to gas explosion and noise studies as Karpowership enters final lap

More late changes to gas explosion and noise studies as Karpowership enters final lap
The Turkish floating power plant Osman Khan in the Ghanaian port of Sekondi Takoradi. (Image: Karpowership)

These risk revisions to the latest EIA studies have come to light amid heightened public awareness of gas explosions triggered by the recent Boksburg tanker disaster.

Karpowership consultants have made further last-minute changes to an environmental impact assessment (EIA) study, the effect of which is to reduce the predicted negative effects of the Turkish floating powerships plan.

Some alterations came to light last month when Our Burning Planet uncovered several inconsistencies between a new fire and explosions risk study for the powerships and a previous version published more than a year ago. These changes have largely been attributed to “software updates” in the computer models used to predict death and casualty risks should a major gas fire or explosion break out on Karpowership vessels anchored in the ports of Richards Bay, Ngqura or Saldanha Bay.

These belated explosion risk revisions come at a time of heightened public awareness around gas explosions following the devastating Boksburg disaster that killed 37 people after an LPG road tanker explosion on Christmas Eve.

Now, other observers have also picked up further revisions to some of the latest EIA studies – including “dramatic” reductions in the noise levels predicted to be generated by powerships over the next 20 years.

Some of these late changes to the original EIA noise studies have been attributed to “new information” emerging from Karpowership and other sources about ship structure and the silencing equipment fitted to the Turkish vessels. 

Read in Daily Maverick: “Karpowership’s environmental hazards controversially reduced in new EIA specs

After years of controversy, a final EIA report is due to be published later this month and then resubmitted for approval to the Department of Environmental Affairs, which rejected the first Karpowership EIA in 2021 on the basis that it was flawed and inadequate in several respects.

Last month, Our Burning Planet undertook a detailed line-by-line comparison of a major hazard risk assessment by Karpowership’s Cape Town risk consultant Claude Thackwray. Significantly, we found numerous changes to the studies he published in February 2021 and November 2022.

In his revised study, Thackwray has reduced the predicted fatality distance of a transfer hose flash fire from 879m to 499m. Fatal impacts due to a jet fire dropped from 568m to 188m, while in another Karpowership gas fire scenario, the lethal impact distance dropped from 220m to just 15m.

At the time, Thackwray attributed these changes to software updates to the computer risk modelling tools he uses. But we noticed that many of the changes applied only to Richards Bay and Ngqura – whereas the fatality distance data for Saldanha Bay remained unchanged.

Now, in response to written requests to explain why the software updates did not appear to affect Saldanha, Karpowership EIA consultant Hantie Plomp has provided further responses after consulting Thackwray.

According to Plomp, the specialist (Thackwray) forgot to change the modelled inputs for Saldanha when he compiled the November 2022 report.

“This was an oversight and has been rectified in the (final) report,” she said, also acknowledging a further “typo error” in describing some of the gas explosion risk contours.

This error had also been corrected, she said, asserting that the mistake did not change the overall results or conclusions of the final report.

The acknowledgement of these omissions and belated changes to gas explosion risk predictions in three national harbours come in the wake of the recent Boksburg gas disaster.

While the Boksburg explosion was caused by propane-based liquid petroleum gas (LPG) – not the methane-based liquid natural gas (LNG) that would be burned by Karpowership – there have nevertheless been numerous fatal natural gas explosions in several parts of the world dating back to the early 1940s.

In one of the worst such incidents on record, at least 124 people were killed after an LNG explosion in Cleveland, US, in October 1944.

In January 2004, 27 people were killed and more than 80 injured after an explosion at an LNG facility in Skikda, Algeria. Six months later, another 24 people were killed and more than 130 injured after an LNG pipeline rupture near Ghislenghien, Belgium.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Karpowership gas leviathan bubbles back up — again

In his report, Thackwray acknowledges the potential for several LNG accident scenarios, including vapour cloud explosions that could cause “extensive property damage and injury or loss of life”.

Overall, however, Thackwray suggests that Karpowership LNG operations in South African  ports “pose a very low risk” – comparable to “ordinary gas connections in a domestic home” or the risk of people getting killed by lightning.

But the recent changes to the gas explosion risks are not the only EIA revisions to have raised eyebrows in several quarters.

In written comments submitted to Plomp and her colleagues, two non-government environmental groups have expressed separate concerns around last-minute revisions to computer-modelled noise predictions emanating from powerships in Saldanha Bay.

The Green Connection and Natural Justice note that noise results modelled during the first EIA had now dropped “dramatically” in the second EIA.

2022 revised noise study Saldanha

2021 noise study Saldanha.

“This dramatic decrease in modelled noise is at odds with the results of 2021, and is hard to explain,” the organisations said.

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In some cases, the predicted noise levels had dropped by about 40 decibels, which was “roughly the difference between a spoken conversation and a jackhammer”.

Explaining these “significant” differences in an updated noise assessment report published in October, SafeTech sound specialist consultant Dr Brett Williams suggested that previous assessments “did not take into account the attenuation of the noise by the (powership) vessel structure”.

He said the latest sound emission estimates were therefore significantly lower than the previous estimates that also “did not take into account that all of the air intakes are only on one side of the vessel (the port side)”.

Similar concerns about the lowering of predicted noise levels have also been raised by estuarine ecologist Professor Digby Cyrus, who is worried that powership noise levels could disrupt migrant bird communities in the Richards Bay Nature Reserve. 

At a virtual public meeting on 23 November, Cyrus asked for an explanation for why predicted noise levels on a sandbar in Richards Bay harbour had dropped considerably compared with a previous study.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Karpowership fails to overturn ruling against its plans to power up South Africa

In response, sound consultant Williams said that when the first noise assessment was done “we did not have enough information on the actual vessel that was going to be used in South Africa so we just assumed that all the noise sources were centrally located along the midline of the vessel. However, after (sound specialist) Tim Mason’s trip to Ghana, he sent us some pictures and he took some readings for us.

A commuter bus powered by methane-based compressed natural gas (CNG) burns in the Stockholm city centre in March 2019. The bus – fortunately carrying no passengers at the time – struck the top of a road tunnel and exploded. (Image source: Twitter/ Popular Mechanics/ Aftonbladet)

“There is a separate report on his trip, I believe, and all the noise-producing sources are located on the Port side of the ship and we put that into our model, when we built a little model of the ship, and we recommended that the Port side face away from that sandbar and face towards the quay within the Port so the noise is going toward the industrial area and not towards the natural receptors to the south side. So, it’s just a case of parking the ship in a position that the major noise sources radiate to an area that is less sensitive. I hope that answers your question.”

Now that the formal public consultation phase has ended, the assessment of answers to this question – and many others – falls to Environment Minister Barbara Creecy and her officials who must assess whether the updated Karpowership EIA report will pass muster. OBP/DM


Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ed Richardson Richardson says:

    Would not be surprised there is a direct correlation between Karpowership deployment and Eskom Stage 6. Or am I just being paranoid?

    • R S says:

      Not at all. I suspect money has exchanged hands and things are intentionally being made worse so that bribes don’t have to be paid back because “karpowership will come to our rescue”.

  • Chris Charles says:


  • Rory Macnamara says:

    Why are these people still getting chances to submit again and again? They could not pass the first report and it appears that they come up with an amendment or new proposal after each objection.
    Can only mean someone or somebodies are getting kick backs! Never mind the unaffordable price to the taxpayer for a very long time. Send the ship back to where it came from -m end of story!

  • Leon F says:

    Yeah right, and Minister Creecy and her official did such a sterling job in the past…. What can possibly wrong???

  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    I see a 20 year stain on the environment and a new, massive debt coming to a taxpayer near you in my future…

  • R S says:

    Gweezy wants his kickbacks from his Turkish friends.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Look out for a deal where the ships get moored in Maputo

  • Jason Stramrood says:

    It is one hell of a stretch to compare these vessels operating normally and which are being used successfully in ports across the globe without major incident, to a road tanker incident in South Africa. Poor journalism IMHO

    While I am not a fan of any project which will provide environmental impact, I struggle to find any power project that won’t cause some and in most cases, far more significant impact. Offset against the loss of life and debilitating injuries in current established facilities and the massive social and economic impact of load shedding, which has no doubt causes some loss of life, directly or indirectly, these power ships seem relatively safe. I wonder if anyone has access to stats on LTIs and deaths in SA powerplants versus these vessels?

    Bearing in mind that these vessel are a temporary solution while SA increases their electrical supply capacity (5 to 10 years) and will reduce the economic impact of load shedding, the higher cost of electricity versus the cost of load shedding should be an easy calculation to determine worth.

    During load shedding, no electricity is being sold but all the ops costs are still there, hence the ridiculous increases in electrical tariff by Eskom. We need power on the grid to get out of the hole.

    Properly vetted, properly implemented and properly regulated, I believe these vessels are a viable plug and play solution to a problem which should have been addressed years ago

    • Louw Smit says:

      If the Karpowership issue was for your stated time duration only, then I believe it may be considered a ‘temporary’ solution while we (unlikely methinks) get to play catchup. But for 20 years at astronomical cost per annum? No way that I as a taxpayer can condone that

      • Jason Stramrood says:

        I agree it may have been a bit of an optimistic timeline for the duration. Happy to agree 20 years.

        From a cost perspective, when you consider load shedding is costing the country an estimated R1bn per stage per day and this is increasing with more businesses failing every year, where does this stand against the cost of powerships?

        Power ships would be supplementing the grid so only provide a portion of the power requirement but allow the grid to remain stable in the event of breakdowns and routine maintenance of the other suppliers.

        Right now, Eskom has all the fixed and operation costs but are not selling power during loadshedding so effectively not getting revenue in. The deficit is being picked up by you and I, the taxpayer with zero return, along with all the escalating social grants, inflation and taxes. I would rather pay higher electricity bills which then contribute to the economy than pay for a white elephant parastatal.

        • Paddy Ross says:

          The points that you make are sound but only if the powerstations are being run efficiently and to maximum effect, subject to essential maintenance. But, and it is a big but, there are many instances reaching the light of day that there may well be an orchestrated campaign to sabotage Eskom output, plus inefficient operation, corruption etc. Once the Karpowership deal is signed and sealed, one anticipates a near miraculous improvement in performance at the power stations.

      • Joe Irwin says:

        A 5 year renewable if required contract would probably be acceptable by everyone who objects to these power ships.

  • Peter Wanliss says:

    Karpowerships Ahoy! What a felicitous concatenation of events is leading us to the installation of these “emergency” power units. Twenty years should be just sufficient to get the Rosatom power stations up and running.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Let’s say LNG powerships are safe and environmentally not harmful. There is one CORE question that demands answering : what will it cost. So after figuring in that Eskom must pay for 17.5 hours per day availability, if they use them rationally (peak rate time periods about 6h a day), exactly what is the cost per kWh of the ships?

  • Steven Burnett says:

    This emergency power project should never be for a 20yr timeline on baseload. Gas price fluctuation since it was submitted has proved what a dumb idea it was to even allow it in the first place.

  • Rainer Thiel says:

    It does look pretty suspicious. Now let us see if Barbara Creecy is shuffled out of her ministerial post.

  • Hugh Kennedy says:

    The real problem is not the EIA, it is the insanity (corruption) of signing a long term power purchase agreement for what was always sold as a a short term emergency fix. This makes no economic sense, a proper ccgt could have been built by now, never mind GWs of renewables at much lower cost.

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