RO intake water quality ‘unknown’

Lack of ‘seasonal data’ blamed for plant not being able to deal with sewage in river

The absence of “seasonal data” is one of the reasons offered by the contractor for Port Alfred’s new seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) plant, for not knowing the extent of e.coli, faecal coliforms and algae in the Kowie River which has affected the running of the plant.

This emerged in the minutes of the RO plant project steering committee (PSC) meeting of August 4, which were provided to Talk of the Town a month later.

Stakeholders at the PSC meeting raised concerns about the SWRO plant not achieving the contracted 2ML/day production.

In the minutes, Ward 10 councillor Ray Schenk said: “We understand that there would have been teething problems, but we were made to understand that the teething problems would not take too long to resolve. But it is now more than a month that the plant is in operation and we still don’t produce 2ML/day consistently. In the past three days [early August] the plant did not even produce 1ML/day. QFS [Quality Filtration Systems] must resolve this issue very quickly to get to the 2ML/day.

“As councillor I will escalate this situation politically if we don’t find a resolution quickly. The contract will have to be applied.”

In response, Louis Fourie of Newground Projects, the engineering consultants for the RO plant project, said he echoed Schenk’s concern. “We are concerned about the performance of the plant. We had a special meeting yesterday and today to address contractual matters. The contract is clear about the required performance of QFS.”

Representatives of the Port Alfred Residents and Ratepayers Association (Parra) and Port Alfred and Nemato Infrastructure Concerns brought up QFS’ history in Cape Town, where the company also blamed the poor quality of intake water for their RO plant failing. In that case, QFS said the City of Cape Town had provided them with incorrect data.

Parra chairman Dawie van Wyk said: “Surely if you build a multimillion rand plant, you will spend many days looking at the input water quality and the variation thereof to ensure plant can handle the varying qualities?”

Johan van Zyl of Panic agreed with Van Wyk. He said with QFS’ experience of what happened in Cape Town, “how do we allow again that the water quality at the intake is not thoroughly checked and monitored for fluctuations?”

“This is a potential trend that has formed,” he added.

“Who is contractually obligated to design according to the variables to be impacted so that we don’t, so soon after the inception, have these extreme down times? It was expected but it should have been compensated for in the design.”

QFS Eastern Cape director Musa Ndlovu responded: “When we tender we use the data that we were given so that we can compare apples to apples.

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“So that was what was offered at tender stage, and then after the tender was awarded we started testing the water and then we designed a plant that is fit for purpose,” she said.

“We have ramped up the plant to 2ML/day and we have given our engineering feedback on how the plant performs at 2ML/day. We have not run the plant for all the seasons and there is no existing data that shows the quality of the Kowie River. We have only ran this plant for one month. With the data that we are getting we constantly adjust the plant because we do not have that seasonal data,” she continued.

“There are high levels of e.coli, faecal coliforms and algae. The desalination skid can produce 2.4ML/day but the pre-treatment has to handle this. We are aware that most of this contamination comes from the sewage pump stations which are being addressed.

“We are collecting data and adjusting the plant to make sure that we produce the full 2ML/day, but it comes at a cost. Additional costs are required to clean the membranes constantly.”

Schenk replied: “In this case the contract clearly states that you will be producing 2ML/day of potable water. The residents are dependent on the 2ML/day – there is just no other water. People must collect water at the communal tap. The people are highly upset about it. I want to know from you by when it will be rectified? It is no use telling us you are looking into it, we need the timeframe so that we can tell the residents by such and such a date you will be getting 2ML/day. Please give us a way forward.”

Ndlovu’s response was: “We needed to have data and there are lot of unknown unknowns at this stage. We are collecting the data from the plant as we are running it. We use this data to write a technical recommendation to the employer’s [municipality’s] representative, it is only then that we can give solid feedback.”

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Schenk highlighted the fact that businesses are closing because of the lack of water, and ratepayers and taxpayers are unhappy as they have not been getting what they paid for.

Van Zyl also weighed in again. “The SWRO plant can only deliver 2ML/day. Port Alfred needs 7ML/day. The issue is much bigger than the SWRO plant only delivering at 66% capacity.

“My question is, who was contractually obligated to provide data on the input water quality, which is now being found to be different? Was that the municipality’s responsibility?”

Fourie responded: “The tender document purposely did not provide quality of raw/input water at tender stage because of the possibility that this will have an impact on the design of the plant such that it could not be misunderstood by the tenderer/contractor. The employer’s [municipality’s] requirements clearly state that the first activity that needs to take place on this project was raw water quality tests. The employer’s requirements also provides the criteria for the tests.

“Unfortunately, the tests were not conducted immediately. QFS was notified that it was the contractor’s responsibility to provide the raw water tests and that these tests should inform the design,” he said.

“It was not the municipality’s responsibility and failure. It is information that QFS needed to provide, we have spoken to QFS about that. I cannot stress it more seriously that this is something that needed to be allowed for in the design, and QFS needs to improve on that.”

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