Rich estate’s dirty, smelly secret
Manicured nature — that’s what you get when you spend a few million rands on a house in the Blair Atholl golf and equestrian estate.
An hour north of Johannesburg, it falls inside a conservation area, but the dominant sound is the incessant whine of lawnmowers. Teams of workers move through the grasslands on the edges of the estate’s 18 golf holes, removing invasive plants.
Everything is just so in this home and playground for residents, who spend hours whizzing between golf holes on electric-powered golf carts.
Wooden bridges, just wide enough for a cart, crisscross the Crocodile River, the centrepiece of Blair Atholl.
After heavy rains in Gauteng, its passage through the estate is loud and filled with white froth as millions of litres of water crash over rocks.
The river enters the one point of the estate that isn’t behind a huge metal fence and electric wiring. It should leave the estate on the other side without any additional waste flowing into it. But this is not the case.
Blair Atholl has a secret that only invited guests can smell, and then only if they get through the estate’s farm-style gatehouse and its security checks — the estate’s sewerage system leaks.
In between the big trees that remain is a network of canals that leads water to irrigation ponds around the estate. These help to keep the lawns and golf holes green in what is one of the driest parts of Gauteng. Some of the canals are stagnant, choked by green scum. The smell of sewage hangs in the summer heat,
The sewerage system, which can be traced by manhole covers and air vents, takes the waste from the west side of the estate to the wastewater treatment plant in the east. Some of these manholes, surrounded by black ground and dark green grass, show all the evidence of nutrient-rich sewage leaking, which leaves a trail down towards the Crocodile.
In some cases, the manhole covers are still slightly ajar.
The Mail & Guardian cannot say when — or how — it gained access to the estate and who it talked to for fear of reprisals against its sources.
But it has seen the broken sewerage system. Releasing untreated sewage into a watercourse is illegal.
The water department responded to M&G questions by doing an inspection of the estate’s wastewater treatment plant, saying it “takes all received allegations of possible risks that could be posed to water resources very seriously”.
The inspectors found “no trace of discharges” from the plant. Instead, the operator said everything they were treating was used to irrigate the golf course.
The department didn’t look at the network of pipes that supply the plant. But it did note that an independent laboratory tested water as it enters the estate, and when it leaves.
In an October community meeting, Blair Atholl’s consultants said that it is hard to draw conclusions from this testing because the water entering the estate is already so polluted.
The wastewater treatment plant is now working properly, which was not the case late last year. Back then, it was filled up to knee-height with sewage. This could have flowed over the low wall at the side of the plant that overlooks the Crocodile.
The estate denies releasing untreated sewage into the Crocodile River. “There is no such occurrence and has never been.” In 2018, an “operator error” led to “sediment from the effluent dam” at the sewerage plant being pumped into the Crocodile.
The water department inspected the plant at the time and the problem was not repeated.
Illegal water use
Despite not having permission to do so, homeowners in the luxury Blair Atholl luxury estate drilled boreholes, the Mail & Guardian reported last year.
This illegal activity only stopped when the department of water and sanitation issued a noncompliance letter in March 2017. This told the estate that it would need to apply to the department to fix its water-use licence.
Blair Atholl has hired consultants who are currently doing this application. At a meeting after the M&G article in December, they indicated that people would not be allowed to use borehole water. This was a key requirement of the compromise reached when the estate was first built.
Because it is in a water-scarce area, where the estate’s neighbours rely on boreholes for water, the water department said Blair Athol could only use water from a bulk water pipeline it built to get water from Tshwane, and its sewage.
Responding to the M&G’s questions, the water department confirmed the illegal water use. “It was with regards to groundwater extraction, which was stopped as it was not included in the water-use licence.”
Paul Marks, the estate’s general manager, blamed the original developer, Wraypex, and said it had not applied for all sorts of different authorisations. This meant the current governing body was having to fix the problems retrospectively. Updating the water-use licence was part of this process, he said.
Thirteen boreholes have been drilled on the estate.
At a public consultation meeting in October, attended by interested and affected parties, including the estate’s neighbours, Blair Atholl’s consultants responded to questions about sewage spills by saying: “Blair Atholl should address this issue and improve management of the sewerage treatment works to avoid such incidents from happening in the future.”
They also noted that the water department had visited the treatment plant “after the last incident”.