Big stink over effluent off Blue Flag beaches

Anti-retrovirals, aspirin and caffeine are just some of the pollutants being pumped into the sea off the Atlantic Seaboard. File picture Henk Kruger

Anti-retrovirals, aspirin and caffeine are just some of the pollutants being pumped into the sea off the Atlantic Seaboard. File picture Henk Kruger

Published Jun 23, 2015


Cape Town - Anti-retrovirals, aspirin, caffeine and other compounds are just some of the pollutants being pumped daily into the sea off the Atlantic Seaboard as the City of Cape Town discharges about 55 million cubic metres of untreated effluent through its three offshore outfall systems.

“We’re at a situation where we’ve got 87 000 different chemical compounds that have not been tested for endocrine disruptions,” said Leslie Petrik, associate professor at University of the Western Cape’s department of chemistry.

“They are (also) potent carcinogens and could cause birth defects and genetic abnormalities.”

Yet the City of Cape Town says it won’t be swayed from its bid to apply for permits to continue discharging effluent from its outfall systems in Hout Bay, Green Point and Camps Bay, which has Blue Flag status.

Ernest Sonnenberg, the mayoral committee member for utility services, said on Monday that there was no land available to institute a secondary treatment capacity at these facilities. The cost of doing so was also prohibitive. “A properly designed and functioning outfall does not pose a risk to the environment or beachgoers and, as such, when balanced against the other pressing needs of the city – such as securing water resources and rehabilitating old pipelines – this is not considered a priority.”

Kayakers, surfers and environmentalists vehemently disagree, and the aerial images by wildlife and landscape photographer Jean Trefson, showing plumes of effluent floating in the sea near Hout Bay and Camps Bay, have caused a stink.

The images went viral on social media, and shortly thereafter the city called for public comment on its application to the national Department of Environmental Affairs to discharge effluent from its coastal outfalls.

The three outfalls, including the Camps Bay system which was commissioned in 1977, was authorised by the National Water Act.

But the responsibility for offshore outfalls was subsequently transferred to the Department of Environmental Affairs and the city needs to apply for permits to continue using this method of effluent discharge. Thislegislation came into effect in 2009, but the city still needs to finalise its permit application so that its effluent discharge is legally compliant.

The closing date for public comment on the city’s application is July 10.

Zolile Nqayi, communications director for the Department of Environmental Affairs, said the city’s plans to continue with this practice would hinge on an assessment of its impact on the environment.

“Currently, these outfalls are also being assessed for compliance to the previous authorisations. Once such a process has been fully completed, the department will be in a position to disclose its view on the environmental impact from these outfalls.”

Trefson noted on his Facebook page that he was invited to a meeting with officials from the city’s wastewater and sanitation department on Friday to discuss his images of the outfalls.

“I finally got the sense that the city is taking the issue seriously,” he said. But he added that the city maintained that thedisposal of untreated effluent was anacceptable practice and that the salt water would kill the e.coli bacteria.

Trefson said the city was, however,concerned about the plumes of waste close to the coastline and that this was the “first time anyone had witnessed and recorded this happening”.

He said: “They assured me that regular testing is conducted along the shoreline and that the results are within acceptablelevels. However, access to this data appears somewhat restricted.”

The city’s application for the Camps Bay permit notes that the effluent is screened and the larger matter disposed at the Vissershok waste management facility.

Kevin Samson, the city’s manager of wastewater, said: “The effluent originates from domestic household and commercial facilities. Treated effluent is being discharged into the sea through a deep sea pipeline,” according to the application.

Samson goes on to say that a detailed survey was done before the sea outfall pipe was designed.

“The cost of piping the wastewater to the nearest conventional wastewater treatment plant at Athlone would be enormous and cannot be justified. Due to its location, there is no other economically viablealternative technology.”

The monitoring of the offshore pipeline, at 1.37km was also not economically viable as the impact at this distance is “minimal”, he said.

For Hout Bay, Samson noted in the application that most of this wastewater was domestic in origin, with some industrial effluent.

As with Camps Bay, there was no”economically viable” alternative technology to the outfall system.

Petrik said that just because the city was compliant in terms of regulations, did not mean that what they were doing was correct.

She said the fact that the city wasn’ttesting properly for compounds other than bacteria, was “completely ignorant”.

With few scientific studies confirming what impact these pollutants could have on the environment, as well as humans who ate contaminated fish or used the water for recreation, the onus was on residents to dispose of their household waste moreefficiently, she said.

She warned that the impact on the fish off the coast could be devastating, as some of the compounds could wipe out entire species. “They’re very toxic to aquatic organisms.”

There are currently only scientific tests for about 50 of the 87 000 suspected compounds being pumped into the sea, she added.

Some of Trefson’s images showed white plumes, and this was the toilet paper that had been macerated with the effluent pulp and released into the sea.

Nqayi said: “The department iscurrently reviewing all existing discharges which will assist the department’s decision to either prohibit or authorise the discharge with specific conditions.” New regulations were being drafted to deal with thesustainable discharge of effluent into all coastal environments.

He said in 2008, it was estimated that 786 301 cubic metres of effluent was discharged daily from offshore outfalls.

The Greater Cape Town Civic Alliance, which represents more than 160 civic organisations, said the city’s outfalls were built more than 25 years ago when there was less knowledge about the harmful effects of pumping raw sewage into the sea. Thedischarge quantities were also far lower.

“These systems can no longer handle the quantities of sewage generated by the city’s burgeoning population and they have proved to be disastrous for the condition of the seas around Cape Town.”

The Camps Bay system was commissioned in 1977, with the Hout Bay and Green Point units becoming operational in 1993.

But Sonnenberg said recent inspections had shown that the diffusion system was functioning well, but further assessments were planned.

Len Swimmer, chairman of the Greater Cape Town Civic Alliance, said in his submission to the Department of Environmental Affairs that the city’s application should be refused so that the municipality coulddevelop a task team, with input from experts and ratepayers, to look at wastewatertreatment options.

Swimmer said the city was putting the lives of residents at risk, and jeopardising Cape Town’s reputation as a touristdestination, because it could not justify the expense of finding an alternative method of waste management in these areas.

According to the city’s website, the wastewater at its three marine outfalls are discharged “underwater, far into the sea”. The outfalls include pre-treatment works, while the underwater pipeline is designed to withstand wave action and a diffuser at the end helps with the dispersal of the waste.

Sonnenberg said: “Even though bacterial standards are not imposed, the outfalls are designed in such a way that bacteria pose very little risk to recreational users. The outfall is designed so that, in the unlikely event that transport to beaches does occur, the combination of initial dilution, oceanic diffusion, and bacterial mortality reduces the bacteria to very low (safe) levels.”

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Cape Argus

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