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Academics’ unsubstantiated bombshells trigger panic free of accountability

Zandvliet Wastewater Treatment Works/Screenshot/Google Maps

‘Apocalypse’. ‘Dystopian nightmare’. ‘Mass fatalities’. ‘Catastrophe’. ‘Cholera outbreak.’ If one had to guess the source of these frightening prophecies regarding the fate of the Cape coastline, one could be forgiven for imagining they were issued by a paperback blockbuster author or a conspiracy-theorist podcaster.

This is a response to the article: Environmental management needs to be democratised

A small group of academics have made a habit of detonating unsubstantiated bombshells in the media, frequently via individuals with unambiguously political agendas, triggering public panic without any apparent burden of accountability.

According to Professors Leslie Petrik and Lesley Green, the apocalypse was set to kick off in late November of 2018, in the shape of an algal bloom detected via satellite imagery picked up by their colleague in Argentina.

Petrik asserted that “everyone playing in the sand will pick up infections”. This was a given, but fatalities were on the cards too and she expressed concern, in an email addressed to Western Cape Provincial Government officials on 30 November that the City of Cape Town had not issued a public warning, given that many schools had now closed for the holidays.

The group went even further, engaging at least one politician, who seized upon the information and announced that “immediate fatalities” would occur, “especially amongst women, children and the elderly”, in a press statement issued on 3 December. A call was made to close beaches and for the banning of consumption of fish and seafood.

At the beginning of Cape Town’s tourist season, Petrik and Green stood by their use of the word “apocalyptic” when describing the state of False Bay beaches, a view which was disseminated in the form of a sensationalist front page article in the Cape Argus on 7 December 2018.

Reams of correspondence can be produced on showing not only how seriously the City of Cape Town and other spheres of government regard any such alarm being sounded, but the lengths to which city officials have gone in their attempts to engage this group constructively.

As it turned out in this instance, after heads of department, senior government officials, and others halted all other work and frantically investigated the claims, the conclusion was that an alarmist approach was misplaced.

No risk to humans was confirmed.

No mass marine mortality occurred.

Nobody reported to any health facilities with the city-wide epidemic predicted by Petrik.

When a senior official from National Government’s Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries advised that there seemed to be “a lot of misinformation relating to the False Bay bloom” and that Professor Green’s conclusions had been inaccurate, with no risk of poisoning, Green expressed “relief” that this was the case.

But the impact of these sensationalist pronouncements on the local economy, not to mention a general sense of well-being among the public, is not easily quantifiable.

Individually addressing each of the conflations and distortions contained in Petrik et al’s latest op-ed is beyond the scope of this article. Based on some of the city’s experiences with Petrik and Green, it is nevertheless necessary to provide a corrective to its more egregious claims.

2018

Almost a year ago to the day, Leslie Petrik derailed any prospect of meaningful engagement at a dialogue organized by the Water Research Commission (WRC) by privately extending an invitation to the media and a tabloid film-maker (Mark Jackson, of “Bay of Sewage” fame).

Each (barring one) scientific authority in attendance had been under the impression that the meeting would be a closed forum, serving as an opportunity for government agencies and the research community to freely share and interrogate each other’s findings with a view to identifying gaps in research around emerging contaminants and their effects, marine outfalls and wastewater disposal. It was in that faith that the relevant experts travelled, not just across the country but the globe, to attend.

Petrik’s reasons for deciding to extend the invitation to individuals who were not in a position to contribute meaningfully to the work, as well as her decision to not contact the hosts of the event (that being the city) about whether it would be appropriate to do so, or even if the venue could accommodate the extra numbers (it could not), may be speculated upon. But the pursuit of constructive engagement among scientists in a closed meeting can reasonably be ruled out as one of them.

By the time the meeting commenced, any hope of the intended value and format of proceedings had been stamped out (small funeral, no-frills), and protest action outside the Civic Centre was already underway. The Manager of Research at the WRC was receiving calls from National Government asking what the commotion was about and whether they should be concerned.

The view expressed by media representatives in the room and activists outside was that they had a right to attend a public meeting and were unhappy that the city had tried to keep the meeting a secret. It was never intended to be a public meeting.

The engagement devolved into a publicity opportunity. Scientists who had prepared in-depth presentations were caught off-guard, given that theirs had been tailored for an audience of experts.

By contrast, Petrik’s presentation was lay-person accessible and soundbite ready. The dialogue had been motivated by her activism on the subject of emerging contaminants, and it was clear that she wasn’t about to let the opportunity for further publicity be missed or momentum be lost. Her media guests listened attentively to news of imminent ecological collapse, making notes for the following day’s headlines. The more measured presentations of other scientists did not appear to enjoy the same degree of rapt attention.

Concerns were raised (not just by the city but other agencies present) that Petrik was exaggerating the possibility that marine outfalls could contaminate bathing areas and had only very shaky evidence and conjecture to support her statements, but these were ignored. She purports to be calling for open and honest engagement, but lived experience strongly suggests otherwise.

Petrik’s research focuses on Contaminants of Emerging Concern, the removal of which from wastewater represents a global challenge to which consensus has yet to be reached by lawmakers and scientists internationally. A number of other questions around her research do not seem to have been considered, such as how pollution from around the world impacts our coast, meaning it is problematic for her to conclude that the CEC traces she has detected come exclusively from city plants.

The group calls repeatedly for transparency and collaboration, yet it is interesting to note that not once have Petrik, Green et al informed the city of their multi-year project, funded by the Norwegian Government, to investigate Cape Town’s three marine outfalls. And they have attended at least four meetings with the city over the past few months.

2019

When Prof Lesley Green contacted the city’s Executive Director for Water and Waste, Dr Kaiser, to discuss test results she and her team had produced, Dr Kaiser responded positively and set up a meeting to do so. This is the meeting referred to in the academics’ most recent Daily Maverick op-ed.

The calendar invitation reflects invitees as being contained to the group of academics and several relevant city officials. The arrival of a large group of politicized activists, as well as a Carte Blanche producer intending to film the meeting, naturally came as a surprise, especially given Kaiser’s appeals in previous email correspondence with Green, with UCT Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research CC’d, to please allow for scientific discussions to be attended by only field experts while common scientific ground is sought. Once this was achieved, broader engagement with the community would commence. Green had not forwarded the official calendar appointment to the activists and the Carte Blanche producer, and thus their names were not reflected on Kaiser’s list of confirmed attendees.

And so another attempt to engage professionally and in good faith was rendered moot. That in itself is disappointing enough. For Green to then manipulate the incident to proceed with a targeted pillorying of Kaiser represents an astonishing degree of contempt.

In her op-ed, Green claims that Kaiser said that she “deals with science, not politics”. This is false. She merely indicated that because the community had engaged directly with the mayor, continuity in that regard was needed and further engagements with the community would be better placed in conjunction with the mayor’s office.

Kaiser’s decision to vacate the room was procedurally correct. The suggestion that her response was not the result of independent thought but rather an obedient observance of Cllr Limberg’s “policy line” is not only offensive to both Kaiser and Limberg but also betrays a lack of understanding of how the different offices function. The fact that parking had been allocated was an innocent and unwitting clerical error made by the official who facilitates logistical arrangements. Assertions contained in the op-ed that parking spots having been arranged amounted to a consensual invitation is disingenuous to say the very least.

Where is the evidence?

Green et al claim that “people are sick and dying of illnesses that appear to result from environmental contamination along that stretch of river”. This is a very serious statement. The city has no knowledge of death occurring, and we ask that more information is immediately provided to the city’s Health Department.

The city’s extensive efforts to find resolution with the Sandvlei community directly over many months, and attempts to conduct a thorough epidemiological health assessment of the residents (to which the community has to date been firmly resistant) is not acknowledged in the article. Neither is the community’s unwillingness to participate in the health assessment interrogated. They do not appear to have sought the input of medical professionals to this end. It is confusing that the academics, one of whom is an epidemiologist, do not seem concerned with a health assessment being a necessary step towards seeking to conclusively identify possible causes of health concerns. Perhaps the evidence is not needed by the time the apocalypse is upon us. Perhaps asking, urgently, that this kind of claim be substantiated is simply symptomatic of “scientific fundamentalism”.

It is concerning that academics who represent universities such as UCT, Stellenbosch and UWC would label peer review as “old-fashioned”, while not subjecting their own work to peer review prior to putting it in the public domain. To date, none of the work by Green et al or their definitive statements have undergone any form of peer review. Had they done this prior to the public launching of their so-called facts, it is to be assumed that many if not most of their statements would not have made it into the media and public debate. Peer review, as arduous and unamenable to sensationalism as it may be, is the very foundation of academic rigour.

On that note, there is absolutely no foundation or basis for the group’s allegation that the city is “fudging” E.Coli test results in pursuit of an extension of a multimillion-rand contract. Their very own data, as reflected in the op-ed, shows the effluent release as being at 250 CFU, which is well within DWAS guidelines for effluent discharge. Additionally, their suggestion that raw sewage was being released into the river by the plant is incorrect. This is independently verifiable.

Academics are generally respected by the public as credible voices, and further credence is added to their pronouncements when published in an independent news source such as DM. How many readers will see the sentence, “People are sick and dying”, and wonder where the rest of the information is?

Their accusations of “polemic” and, bewilderingly, a “familiar game of angels and demons” are more fitting of their approach than that of the city.

Petrik’s and Green’s treatment of what could and should have been opportunities for constructive engagement call into question whether they really are motivated by a desire to work collaboratively at all.

Petrik has on a number of occasions refused invitations to work collaboratively with teams of highly qualified scientists employed by the City of Cape Town, yet continues to make unsubstantiated statements about their integrity in the media.

The city would like to have a better idea of Petrik’s research – what her sample size is, and whether the scope of her research is broader than simply a focus on Cape Town. It also wants to know whether methods of wastewater management in other coastal cities, and its impact, have been explored.

Where to from here?

Bizarrely, Petrik, Green, et al pre-emptively absolve themselves of accountability for their reckless and damaging remarks by impishly suggesting they’re likely to be stereotyped as “women who make a fuss”. The attempt to cast themselves as an under-represented group usually not taken seriously is unconvincing. Executive Director Kaiser, whose efforts to engage the academics have been slanderously distorted, is a woman. The Mayoral Committee Member – also heavily criticised by them – is a woman.

We remain, as ever, open to engaging with the academics and their findings. We have no objection to fuss-making, as long as it stands even a slim chance of meaningful, open, and constructive outcomes. Fuss can be worked with. DM

This right of reply was written by Cllr Xanthea Limberg, the City’s Mayoral Committee Member: Water and Waste; Dr Gisela Kaiser, Executive Director: Water and Waste; Peter Flower, Director: New Water Programme; Gregg Oelofse, Manager: Coastal Management; and Ald Clive Justus is Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee: Water and Waste

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