Big stink threatens Kowie River

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Thieves plunder sewage plant, e.coli levels rise

DEVASTATING DAMAGE: Cable thieves toppled an electrical control box at the Port Alfred sewage plant, among other damage. The sewage ponds are in the background Picture: JON HOUZET
DEVASTATING DAMAGE: Cable thieves toppled an electrical control box at the Port Alfred sewage plant, among other damage. The sewage ponds are in the background Picture: JON HOUZET

JON HOUZET

PORT Alfred’s sewage plant, which has been inoperative for a year, may have resulted in untreated effluent seeping into the Kowie River.

Ndlambe Municipality confirmed that the plant in Centenary Park had not been working after it was vandalised by cable thieves, who have struck repeatedly over the years, even before a new R34-million sewage treatment works was built in 2013.

When Talk of the Town visited the plant recently, the newer facility, which is surrounded by a fence, was intact, but the older section above four large sewage ponds was vandalised and inoperative.

Cable thieves had even pushed over a substation to steal the electric cables, as well as the wiring inside smaller electrical boxes contained in a protective cage.

The theft of the cables means that sewage cannot be pumped from the old ponds to the treatment works, but instead goes through a primitive natural filtration process from pond to pond – each pond being filled to capacity – before seeping across a field towards the Kowie River.

Also among the machinery that now lies inoperative is a Rotamat arm with combs that is meant to prevent plastic and other debris from entering the treatment works. Workers closed off that sluice and now only use an open channel without the Rotamat arm.

When TotT initially asked the municipality about the inoperative plant, infrastructural development director Noluthando Vithi assured that “there is no spillage – no sewerage is running to the river at all. The sewerage is contained by the ponds.”

TAINTED RUNOFF: The entry point for runoff from Centenary Park into the Kowie River, where TotT took a water sample which showed e. coli levels the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry has declared hazardous for recreational use Picture: JON HOUZET
TAINTED RUNOFF: The entry point for runoff from Centenary Park into the Kowie River, where TotT took a water sample which showed e. coli levels the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry has declared hazardous for recreational use Picture: JON HOUZET

However, there is constant runoff from Centenary Park which flows into the Kowie River, so Talk of the Town decided to take a water sample at the little bridge with the stormwater drains between Centenary Park and Rabbit Rocks.

We submitted it to Pathcare Laboratory. The result, received on Tuesday, showed a total coliform count of greater than 2 420 per 100ml, and more importantly an e. coli count of 770 per 100ml.

According to the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry’s (DWAF) South African Water Quality Guidelines for Fresh Water (1996): Recreational Water Use, there is already a slight risk of gastrointestinal effects among swimmers and bathers at an e.coli count of more than 130/100ml.

At a count greater than 400/100ml, DWAF advises that the risks of health effects associated with contact recreational water use increase as e. coli levels increase. Less water needs to be ingested to cause ill effects.

The area where the sample was taken is in the Kowie River ski zone.

The municipality, meanwhile, is waiting for an insurance payout to be able to fix the plant.

TotT asked the municipality the following questions:

  • How often does the municipality take samples of river water for testing of e. coli levels?
  • Has the municipality taken water samples for tests from this area, seeing as it’s obvious there will be untreated runoff from the ponds?
  • When last did the municipality take a sample from this area, if ever?
  • At what stage would the municipality issue an advisory to the public not to swim or have full contact with water which exceeds the acceptable limit for e. coli?

Although guards are placed at the sewage works, it is a large area and difficult to secure, especially from armed thieves. TotT asked the municipality if it would not save significantly more money and protect it from loss of operation in the long term by spending extra money on having guards 24/7 with dogs and/or shotguns with non-lethal bird shot.

We still await answers.

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