/ 13 February 2023

Northern Cape municipality slapped with R10m fine for sewage pollution

Sewage 6598 Dv
Political interference, corruption, skills shortages, supply chain inefficiencies and red tape are among the causes of the eThekwini municipality’s water and sanitation woes that have led to a breakdown of the water treatment infrastructure. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The Umsobomvu local municipality in the Northern Cape has been fined R10 million for spilling raw sewage in the Karoo town of Noupoort that posed a “huge health risk” for local residents.

The fine has, however, been suspended for five years on condition that the municipality is not convicted of further offences in terms of the National Environmental Management Act (Nema) and abides by a series of conditions to stop the sewage pollution, detailed in the plea and sentence agreement that was signed on 8 February. The conditions include ensuring that wastewater is effectively dealt with and that sewage is adequately cleaned up.

The matter arose after Noupoort farmer Pieter Langenhoven registered a case with the local police, who referred the investigation to the Green Scorpions in the national department of forestry, fisheries and the environment

The unit’s inspectors investigated and the Northern Cape director of public prosecutions’ office decided to prosecute on charges of causing significant pollution or degradation of the environment.

In the dock in the Colesberg regional court were the municipality, together with Amos China Mpela, the former municipal manager, Simphiwe Nkcithiso, acting municipal manager, and Franklin Swartz, the head of water, sanitation and solid waste. 

In their first appearance on 13 December, the matter was set down for a plea. The agreement that was reached noted how the management of Noupoort’s sewage system “falls within the ambit of these three positions in the municipality”. Under the agreement, the state agreed to withdraw all charges against the individuals.

Sewage spillages

The deal detailed how the municipality had admitted that various complaints were submitted to it from 2017 up to date regarding pollution in the area of Noupoort. During a site visit by the the department’s inspectors on 22 June 2020, at and near the Eurekaville pump station, sewage debris/sludge was observed next to the manhole and untreated sewage water was flowing into Noupoort drift and Van der Heever drift, which is a water course.

There was also a “pervasive” sewage smell and dark green water, “which was clearly contaminated” as well as traces of sewage water, sewage debris and grey water along the Noupoort drift and on Langenhoven’s farm.

The municipality, too, admitted that at and near Reguit street pump station, raw sewage spillages were observed and the manhole was overflowing and pooling water next to the pump station. At and near Klaasen street, the manhole was observed overflowing with sewage, while there were pools of “potentially contaminated water”. 

Noupoort drift flows into the Van der Heever drift, which flows into Langenhoven’s farm right next to Noupoort. The immediate area of the Reguit street pump station was contaminated with the untreated wastewater “because of overflowing of wastewater containing high amounts of faecal coliforms and E.coli over a period of time into the immediate field area”. 

Under the agreement, the municipality admitted that on diverse occasions from 2017 to date untreated waste containing high amounts of faecal coliforms and E.coli overflowed from different manholes and at the two pump stations in Noupoort and into the Noupoort drift and Van der Heever drift. It conceded that the pollution of Noupoort drift had a “direct and negative impact” on Langenhoven’s farming activities.

The municipality acknowledged it failed to take all reasonable measures to manage the waste in such a manner that it does not endanger health or the environment or cause nuisance through noise, odour or visual impacts, which failure caused significant pollution or degradation of the environment. 

The agreement noted that a sample collected downstream in Noupoort drift was analysed and indicated that the samples contained high amounts of faecal coliforms and E.coli.

“The accused knew that it was its responsibility to ensure the sufficient and safe management of the waste in the town of Noupoort and that it is a punishable offence not to take all reasonable measures to manage the waste in such a manner that it does not cause significant pollution or degradation of the environment or is likely to cause significant pollution or degradation of the environment,” read the agreement.

Aggravating circumstances

Mitigating circumstances in the matter include that the municipality had drafted a business plan and had secured funding for the refurbishment of the Noupoort sewage system. The tender to refurbish the sewer system was finalised and the successful company had already started with the project, the agreement noted. Funding of about R18 000 000 was provided for this project, which is supposed to be completed by March this year.

“The accused undertook to put specific measures in place to sufficiently and safely manage the waste of Noupoort from now on, and shows true remorse for its transgressions.”

The aggravating circumstances were that the pollution had occurred over an extended period and made certain areas in Noupoort “unsafe and led to a huge health risk”; had a direct adverse impact on various members of the community; and that “the negative impact already caused by the pollution “cannot be reversed”.

Among the conditions of the suspension of the hefty fine is that the municipality appoints an independent wastewater engineer to evaluate its refurbishment project, that any sewage overflows or sewage spillages in the Noupoort sewage be cleaned up, and that any blockages in the sewage system be unblocked within 72 hours of the finalisation of the agreement.

All the sewage pump stations and manholes in Noupoort must be inspected twice a week, with a register to be kept noting such inspections. Any blockages of the sewage system or malfunctioning of the sewage pumps must be attended to within 72 hours of the municipality becoming aware of the problem.

The municipality, too, must take water water samples from the boreholes, which supply the town of Noupoort with drinking water, have it tested at an accredited laboratory

and submit the results to the department by 28 February.

The department’s spokesperson Albi Modise said the unlawful and uncontrolled release of sewage has the potential to cause damage to the environment, which may result in adverse human health effects. 

“For this reason, there are several provisions which are contained in Nema, and its subordinate environmental legislation, which criminalises such behaviour.”