R10m to fix Durban sewage plant

The eThekwini municipality is spending more than R10-million on new pumps to replace those that broke down and caused a sewage spill into Durban harbour. The spill stopped work in parts of the harbour, costing businesses millions of rands.

The contamination has affected the city’s ship repair and hull-cleaning industries, and subsistence fishermen have also been forced to stop fishing in the harbour. Restaurants around the marina have had to close, and the fall-off in trade is hurting cruise companies.

The stench of sewage, mixed with that of the chemicals being used to try to neutralise the faeces in the water, was only now starting
to clear.

The spill came from the Mahatma Gandhi Road pump station. Built at a cost of R120-million five years ago, its four pumps move sewage around the hilly city so that it can be treated. It replaced the Point Road station, which had operated for 52 years.

Now only two of the new station’s pumps are working. These pumps, designed to deal with water or sewage, will be replaced with sewage-specific pumps that, said David Wilson, operations head of the city’s sanitation department, will be better suited to dealing with waste and less likely to break down.

According to employees at Durban Solid Waste, who asked not to be named because they are not allowed to speak to the media, the Mahatma Gandhi Road station has a history of problems.

One said: “There have been problems with the station, which started a year after it was built. They have got worse since and they are still happening. The whole place is a mess. The old station was fine for 52 years.”

Another employee added: “There are problems with the design and the pumps aren’t right. They aren’t designed for pumping shit.”

On Wednesday employees were working on two of the broken pumps, which had been taken apart, but had to stop because the crane inside the facility was broken. The two other pumps were back in action.

Supervisor Ted Mngoma said employees had been working around the clock to repair the pumps since the initial breakdown.

“It’s been a very big job, but we have the two working now and are waiting to finish the job off. It will take us some time but we should finish next week.”

Durban port manager Nokuzola Nkowane said the ban on diving and fishing in the harbour, imposed by the Transnet National Ports Authority at the beginning of May, remained in place because of dangerous E coli levels. She said tests indicated that the magnitude of the faecal contamination was decreasing, but that the water quality was still unsafe and “presents a risk to human health”.

Wilson said the two pumps out of commission should be functioning by June 5, and enough spares had been purchased to give the city better standby capacity.

“These are interim measures,” he said. “We are going to rehabilitate the whole pump station, installing a specific type of pump that is sewage-dedicated.”

Wilson said that it was “unfortunate” that all four pumps had broken down at once and that the city was getting quotes to ascertain the costs of “remediating” the marina area. Although the more visible faeces had gone, the tainted water and waste that had settled on the bottom needed to be removed. The decision on whether this was necessary would be taken soon.

There was no marine life visible in the water in the marina, which was grey from the untreated waste. The marina office, which had to close at the height of the crisis, has opened again. The marina’s manager, Malcolm Manion, said the situation had improved, but was still serious.

“There’re no longer huge turds racing each other into the harbour but the smell is still awful because the waste still appears to be entering the water, but not in solid form.

“We are really concerned about the long-term situation as the waste is sinking to the bottom.”

He said that at neap tides, when there was little variation between high and low tides, the waste isn’t being washed out to sea fast enough to clear the harbour of it. “The next spring tides are next week, so we are hopeful that this will help.”

At least a third of the 360 craft in the marina would have to be lifted and have their anti-fouling strip re-applied to stay compliant with marine safety regulations, he said.

Boat builder Ron Bowman had lost R200 000 in business by Monday.

“I haven’t pulled a boat out of the water in 35 days. The E coli levels are too high. People
are getting sick just from touching boatlines. It’s going to be quite a while before we can work again. In the meantime, people have to be paid their wages, the rent has to be paid,” he said.

On Wednesday Bowman began work on his first yacht since the end of April.

“The client lifted it out of the water themselves. There’s no way we’re going anywhere near the water,” he said.

Tracy Nettmann of Aquaserve Diving Services said she had lost “millions” in business since the ban began, preventing the company, which specialises in hull-cleaning for cargo ships, from putting divers in the water.

“We have been unable to work since the first week of May. The agents are telling the clients upfront that the husbandry and water work can’t be done in Durban at the moment, so vessels aren’t requesting quotes,” Nettmann said.

“We vaccinate our people and take all the necessary precautions. We can’t put our
people in the water if there is a risk to their lives.”

Nettmann said she was concerned that the situation would be worsened by a strike threatened by members of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, which would further slow down the movement of vessels in and out of the harbour.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper

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