UPDATE: Margate sewage contamination: Who, what, where, when and why

No swimming: Since the discharge of the effluent into the Nkongweni River bathers are barred from swimming at Margate lagoon and beach, and at Lucien beach.

IN the wake of this week’s major sewage contamination at Margate’s Nkongweni River, an audit report released last week has revealed that serious and urgent intervention by Ugu District Municipality is needed to prevent an environmental disaster.

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This after the Nkongweni River, which flows onto Margate beach, had to be breached by Ugu after a major discharge of sewage into the river on Monday morning this week.

An excavator works through the night to open the polluted river.

According to Ugu District’s spokesman, France Zama, the problem was due to pump failure, caused by a blockage in the drainage line of the pump station. This in turn caused flooding in the wet and dry well which resulted in effluent being discharged into the river.

The breached Nkongweni river mouth.

Both Margate and Lucien beaches are currently closed for bathing. “Residents are urged to avoid contact with water in the lagoon and at Margate beach until the levels of contamination have been certified to be within acceptable standards,” said Mr Zama.

This has also led to rumours of legal action and that Margate’s chances of Blue Flag status may be in jeopardy.

Let’s recap this week’s chain of events:

  • The Herald received a call from a concerned Manaba resident who witnessed several honey-sucker vehicles travelling in haste along Lilliecrona Boulevard.
  • When the Herald arrived at Lilliecrona Boulevard, both Ugu and private honey-sucker vehicles were seen travelling back and forth, discharging sewage into the pumphouse and into a manhole on the road.
  • The Herald reporter followed a honey-sucker to the Margate river, where a large team from Ugu Municipal District was present. The Herald reporter was told by an unknown man to leave the site. This, together with footage of effluent flowing into the river, are caught on video.
  • Margate and Lucien beaches are closed.
  • Mr Zama said that rehabiliation of the pump station was conducted immediately and carried out till the early hours of Tuesday. “This involved the execution of manual draw through the Vacuum Tanker Serve (VTS) trucks which also worked through the night on Monday to restore the pump station back to operation,” he said. The pumps have since been repaired.

Ugu District municipal workers at the overflowing pump station on Monday this week.

  • On Tuesday, according to Mr Zama, a high-level team of environmental health services officials conducted ‘constant tests of the river to determine the level of contamination in order to institute possible remedial measures’. He added that a clean-up operation of the river and beach was under way.
  • When a Herald reporter, together with ward councillor Dave Watson, arrived at the Waste Water Treatment Works early on Tuesday morning, they were met with barrier tape and a security guard who jumped up when he saw the camera and said: ‘Don’t shoot’. Red tape and signs saying ‘no swimming’ had been erected at the river and at the main beach.  
  • Worryingly, the Herald reporter witnessed no signs of a clean-up at the beach and it is unclear if Ugu had taken any such measures or re-oxygenated the water before any fish died. However, Paul Watson, acting general manager of water services, said that, with regard to the clean-up operation, teams from Ugu had breached the river, were monitoring the banks for debris and had cleaned around the pump station. According to one source, breaching is considered a ‘cop out’ as it just moves the pollution from one ecosystem to another, albeit from a closed system to an open one, which allows for dilution. Breaching is also seen as a last life or death option, the source adds, not a first option and the accepted policy is to try and treat the problem in the estuary.
  • An Ugu District municipal worker told a Herald reporter, when she questioned what they were doing at the site, that they were discharging water from the pump station into the Nkongweni River.

  • Another source says officials are angry that Ugu didn’t follow due process. This process should have, they said, included: an immediate lock down for public safety, with the relevant department being informed of a Section 30 incident. An estuarine specialist should have been appointed to take water samples and work out a clean-up strategy which is both environmentally appropriate and legal. It is believed that Ugu has already been issued warnings for dumping sewage at sea without a coastal discharge permit and the officials tasked with environmental protection are taking the matter VERY seriously.
  • The honey-sucker vehicles lined up at the pump station, along the Nkongweni River.

  • An environmental specialist told the Herald that a sewage spill of this nature can have ‘massive’ impacts, both directly and indirectly and these are not resolved by simply breaching the river mouth. The E.coli levels will have to be monitored for some time and there could be significant impacts from heavy metals and hormones found in raw sewage, the specialist added.
  • “The levels which were experienced would most definitely have an effect on the species which live in the estuary and some sensitive species could be completely wiped out.”

It must be noted:

  • Despite a request for information sent to Ugu on Monday, no official communication was received by the Herald until a general press release was emailed on Wednesday morning.
  • This is not the first time a spill of this nature has occurred. In 2015, the Herald reported that millions of litres of sewage were seen flowing into the Nkongweni and Bhilanhlolo rivers in Ramsgate.
  • In another shock, the Herald has been informed by a trusted source that recent water tests had shown worryingly high levels of E.coli and contamination in the Port Edward estuary.

    The breached Nkongweni River.

The question on many people’s lips at the moment is why this had been allowed to happened again?

The answer may lie in the water and waste water process audit, released to Ugu District Municipality’s Water and Sanitation Portfolio Committee last week.

Mechanical equipment at all purification plants has deteriorated and most of the equipment has reached a stage where replacement and an upgrade is the only option. All the waste water plants have reached their design lifespan and require upgrade or refurbishment – read the report.

It continued:

The Bhobhoyi and Umtamvuna water purification plants are struggling to cope with the demand and are in the process of being upgraded. Most maintenance work can only be done once the upgrades are completed. Eskom supply capabilities restrict the upgrade of certain facilities such as the Umtamvuna water treatment works. Contract management can be improved to ensure timeous completion of upgrades. Pump station sumps are not being maintained regularly. Silt build-up in the pump station sumps is a common problem at all pump stations. The organisational structure for the process control and mechanical section is not conducive for optimal functioning of Waste Water Treatment Works.

The audit revealed some issues common to all purification plants:

  1. Mechanical plants and equipment are generally in a bad state of disrepair.
  2. No scheduled/planned maintenance programme is in place.
  3. The workload is too much for the maintenance team, due to shortage of skilled fitters and artisans.
  4. Funding is inadequate to address all the defects.
  5. Process control staff are well trained but are despondent because their hands are tied due to the condition of mechanical equipment.
  6. There is shortage of process controllers in most of the waste water treatment works and water treatment works.
  7. Supply chain management is crucial in acquisition or replacement of critical equipment.
  8. Grass cutting at the work sites remain a challenge.
  9. Sewage pump stations which do not have emergency power back-up pose an environment risk.

Cllr Dave Watson responded, saying Ugu had reached an ‘engineering tipping point’. “We are facing an ongoing water crisis and over the years Ugu staff, audit and engineer reports have pleaded for more machinery, logistics and money.

Don’t blame Ugu administration, blame the council for not identifying the problems. Why not scrap events like the Jazz Festival and start prioritising and addressing the real problems.

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“Not once have we heard any Ugu official stand up and say: ‘We have a problem’. Administration on many occasions has identified and reported problems to council but they have failed to address them and come up with a solution,” he added.

“Poor water and sanitation can single-handedly take out the economy and destroy our social status and ultimately our environment.”




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Shona Aylward

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UPDATE: Margate beach open – lagoon remains closed