OUTA calls on City of Cape Town to be transparent with civil society

City of Cape Town should take responsibility for its recent actions at Potsdam Wastewater Treatment Works and be transparent about these issues

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17/06/2021 15:04:35

OUTA calls on City of Cape Town to be transparent with civil society

The Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) and the Ratepayers’ and Residents’ Associations in Milnerton call on the City of Cape Town to be transparent regarding the recent “emergency effluent discharge” at Potsdam Wastewater Treatment Works (WWTW).  After receiving video footage showing that the city was discharging effluent into the Diep Rivier from the Long Pond sluice gate and not from the official discharge point (see point PDF on OUTA's water report, attached below), the matter was escalated to the city for clarity. 

“It would seem from the footage that Potsdam WWTW opened sluice gates at the Long Pond, allowing the effluent to flow directly into the Diep Rivier catchment via this outlet,” says Andrea Korff, OUTA’s Senior Legal Project Manager. “According to the National Environmental Management Act and Potsdam’s Water Use License, the city is only allowed to discharge treated effluent that complies with certain standards into a nature reserve.  Disposal has to be through legal official discharge points.” 

OUTA has always believed that one of the major contributing sources to the pollution in the Diep Rivier appears to be the Potsdam WWTW and its “unofficial” and "emergency discharge points”.  Recent requests for water test results on these emergency discharge points have been ignored. However, independent water testing consistently shows low levels of pollution above Potsdam and high levels of pollution in the river immediately below Potsdam.

On 30 April 2021, a complaint was lodged with the Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning, regarding an observed illegal discharge.

The city responded to the initial complaint and indicated that what was observed was scum that had overflowed from the Long Pond due to rising water levels in the ponds as a result of the annual pond cleaning currently in progress.

The city’s response did not seem to hold any water, as a couple of days later, video footage shared with OUTA showed that the city deliberately discharged from that site. A further complaint was submitted.

According to the city’s own progress report, which is mandatory in terms of the directive issued against the city, there is no discharge from the site in question (Long Pond). The city confirmed that most treated effluent is stored in Long Pond to supply onsite belt presses and end users, yet the video footage tells a different story.

After picking up the anomalies with the city’s initial response, OUTA engaged with the city, which then undertook to investigate the matter, as officials were apparently unaware of the discharge taking place. The city undertook to provide OUTA with a report on its findings by the end of May 2021.

“According to the results of our water samples taken on 3 May 2021 at the Long Pond discharge point, OUTA found that the sluice was still wet, but flow was minimal. However, E Coli levels in the river at the discharge point measured 85 000 cfu/100ml.  On 09 June 2021, our water samples showed an E Coli level of 1.6 million cfu/100ml inside the Long Pond, which is cause for concern.  What makes it even worse is that the city did not take water samples measuring the quality of the discharge on the days it happened. In OUTA’s opinion, this is a direct contravention of the National Environmental Management Act,” says Korff.

In a subsequent response, the city indicated that during pond cleaning operations, operational emergencies and rainy days, the Long Pond level increases to such an extent that the treated effluent pushes back and poses operational risks. The city also stated that Long Pond will be treated as an “emergency discharge site”, as it is it is imperative that the levels there are actively managed in order to ensure “that expensive infrastructure is not damaged and to ensure an ongoing sustainable compliance of treated effluent discharged into the Diep Rivier”.

According to Korff, OUTA finds it interesting that the city’s second response was a letter directed to the Director of Environmental Law Enforcement, Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning, informing the department of the future use of the Long Pond (sluice gate) discharge during operational emergencies. “The question remains whether the city reported these ‘emergency discharges’ to the appropriate oversight authorities when they discharged on 2 May 2021 and 03 May 2021 and, if not, why not?” says Korff. 

“Although we understand that emergency discharge would be necessary in some instances, it does not absolve the city of its responsibility to ensure that the effluent they are discharging into the Diep Rivier is compliant with Potsdam’s water use license. The only way to effectively monitor the quality of the effluent is to take water samples at the place from which they are discharging. The city cannot discharge from the Long Pond Sluice and take the water samples at their temporary outlet,” says Korff.

Despite having submitted numerous complaints to the city, the problem seems to continue, as is evident from the state of the Milnerton Lagoon in the past couple of weeks. The city has always claimed that the discharge from Potsdam is well within proper guidelines. OUTA believes that it is pointless to claim excellent results on the treated effluent, whilst emergency discharge sites discharge highly contaminated effluent into the environment.

It has also come to OUTA’s attention that the Department of Water and Sanitation conducted a site inspection at Potsdam on 20 May 2021 to determine if there was any non-compliance with the water use license. However, we are still awaiting the outcome of the investigation.

“We call on the city to be transparent with civil society and to work together to find solutions to the devastating problem. However, the only way we will be able to work together and avoid future misunderstanding, is for the city to be open, honest and transparent when issues are raised,” says Korff.

OUTA will continue to monitor the water quality being discharged within the Diep Rivier Estuary and will continue to apply pressure on authorities.


A voicenote with comment by Andrea Korff is here

Water report

A copy of the independent water testing report of 8 May 2021, showing point PDF, is here.

Picture: Johnnie Miller