No EIA approval for RO plant

Additional concerns raised about environmental impact, safety and feasibility of process, testing

Even with delays, the 2ML seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) plant and 3ML wastewater reclamation plant currently under construction to address Port Alfred’s water crisis commenced without environmental authorisation or an emergency waiver, Talk of the Town has learned.

An EIA was required for the site of the SWRO and wastewater plant after a decision was made to move the site from Wharf Street – where a previous temporary desalination plant had been placed – to next to the Port Alfred sewerage plant in Centenary Park.

The SWRO plant will draw raw water from the Kowie River to purify to drinking water, while the wastewater reclamation plant is intended to convert sewage water to drinking water.

Resident Michael Varela, who raised concerns about the project with Ndlambe Municipality months ago, provided TotT with correspondence between himself and the Eastern Cape department of economic development, environmental affairs and tourism (Dedeat).

Addressing his concerns to regional manager for environmental affairs Dayalan Jeff Govender in March, Varela asked for copies of the documents of authorisation for the two plants under construction.

“Alternatively, if no authorisation was deemed necessary, I would like reasons for this. I have attached our municipalities’ recent ‘press release’ on the status of the project for your review. If you are familiar with the situation you might notice that their diagram includes the Amatola brack water RO plant, which is not functional,” Varela wrote.

“The following activities in NEMA [National Environmental  Management Act] Listing Notice 1 appear to be applicable to the scheme as described in the media release: Activity 16 – The development and related operation of facilities for the desalination of water with a design capacity to produce more than 100 cubic metres of treated water per day; and Activity 25: The development and related operation of facilities or infrastructure for the treatment of effluent, wastewater or sewage with a daily throughput capacity of more than 2,000 cubic metres but less than 15,000 cubic metres,” he wrote.

By April 23, Govender admitted the S30A directive had not been signed yet

Govender initially responded that a directive would be issued “in terms of Section 30A” on March 31, after “final confirmation of information by DWS [department of water and sanitation]”. He further said it was “a rapid response situation”.

Valera asked for a copy of the directive when it became available.

However, by April 23, Govender admitted the S30A directive had not been signed yet.

In response, Varela wrote: “Any further information regarding this process? It seems they are proceeding with no authorisation/waiver whatsoever?”

No other response was forthcoming. Varela then addressed his concerns to municipal manager Rolly Dumezweni, reminding him that he had received no further communication from him or infrastructure director Noluthando Vithi since March 23, when Dumezweni said Vithi was attending to his queries.

Varela said the press release issued by the municipality at the time had not satisfied his “concerns regarding safety and feasibility of the RO process and the testing plan.

…the timing [of any public participation events] would suggest that the topic would not have included the sewage RO plant which is the most critical aspect

“In fact the document contains questionable and/or inaccurate details such as including the Amatola brack water RO plant in the process diagram and the stated public participation events. While I have not succeeded in verifying the events themselves, the timing would suggest that the topic would not have included the sewage RO plant which is the most critical aspect,” he said.

“I had heard that the justification for a sewage RO plant was that although more saltwater RO plants were intended for the future, they would require an EIA process that would take about a year. As the reality is that under the emergency waiver no EIAs are required at this stage, what, in fact, is the real justification for a sewage RO plant?”

He has received no response.

TotT has also asked the municipality for a copy of the authorisation or waiver, and for their responses to Varela’s questions, but had no received no response at the time of going to press.

I have serious reservations about any municipality intending to spend so much money on systems being erected via a S30A waiver and with no EIAs or public participation.

Varela also sought expert opinion on the matter, contacting Professor Leslie Petrik, a leading expert in the field of environmental remediation, water treatment and beneficiation of industrial wastes at the University of the Western Cape, and Professor Jo Barnes from Stellenbosch University’s division of community health. They agreed that their comments could be used.

Barnes wrote: “I have serious reservations about any municipality intending to spend so much money on systems being erected via a S30A waiver and with no EIAs or public participation.

“This drought did not descend on the municipality overnight. It has been some time in the making. It looks as if both the municipality in question and the provincial authorities overseeing the municipal performance have been caught napping. Or [it] is using an ominous situation as a shortcut to avoid accountability and proper design and planning. Such overhasty implementation of a large capital-intensive project with serious health and environmental implications appears to be highly problematic. Solid science-based and verifiable reasons for this action need to be provided before such a waiver can be allowed.”

Unless there is rigorous monitoring and additional barriers there is a high chance of breakthrough and supplying contaminated water to residents if reusing waste water or contaminated river water for drinking purposes.

Petrik wrote: “I am not an expert on RO, I just know that high fouling of RO membranes can be expected due to the intake water quality, which will push up costs. I completely agree with all Jo Barnes’ inputs about the microbial and viral issues, and can add that we have detected female hormones and other chemicals passing through RO, as these membranes are prone to pinhole damage. Unless there is rigorous monitoring and additional barriers there is a high chance of breakthrough and supplying contaminated water to residents if reusing waste water or contaminated river water for drinking purposes. I wrote an article on this in Daily Maverick recently.”

On the proposal that brine from the SWRO be discharged into the sewage treatment ponds, Petrik said: “A high salt load will disturb the microbial population and lower the biological processing efficiency so would lower the rate of nutrient removal. Also to note that adding the RO retentate brine salt back into the sewage ponds means that it will then be in the water intake to the RO that reuses the effluent, so the salt is being recycled through the system and thus increases the burden on the RO. Not a clever idea…”

Valera forwarded these comments to the municipality.

No penalties for RO plant delays

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