Our Burning Planet

ENVIRONMENTAL CRIME

Mpumalanga municipality fined R70m for Vaal River sewage pollution

Mpumalanga municipality fined R70m for Vaal River sewage pollution
Members of the joint Blue Scorpions and Green Scorpions environmental management investigating team in Mpumalanga acknowledge their successful prosecution of the Lekwa local municipality. Outside the Standerton Regional Court last week are, from left: Lesley Moremi, Thandi Mopai, Gezephi Nyalunga, Musa Luhlanga, Xolile Mhlakoana and investigator Maanda Alidzulwi (back, hands raised). (Photo: Supplied)

The Lekwa Local Municipality was fined R70m for failing to stop sewage from flowing into the Vaal River. The penalty is among the highest on record in SA for an environmental crime

A municipality in Mpumalanga has been fined R70-million and put on strict terms to plug the torrent of raw or semi-treated human sewage and factory muck that has been pouring into the Vaal River near Standerton for more than five years.

The fine, imposed last week on the Lekwa Local Municipality by the Standerton Regional Court, is among the highest on record in South Africa for an environmental crime and comes at a time when several other municipalities face similar criminal action for their failure to halt the regular fouling of rivers and dams nationwide.

vaal river sewage

A torrent of untreated sewage flows towards the Vaal River from a pump station in Standerton. (Photo: Supplied)

The prosecution, investigated by Maanda Alidzulwi, a senior Green Scorpions environmental management inspector in Mpumalanga, comes in the wake of a waterborne cholera outbreak that has killed at least 45 people in several provinces.

Last year, Alidzulwi took the Thaba Chweu municipality to court for similar water pollution offences, securing a R10-million fine.

He was also a guest speaker at Daily Maverick’s Gathering: Earth Edition last month, where he warned that pollution of the Vaal River was endangering the health of thousands of people because of the regular and “blatant” dumping of untreated human sewage into local rivers.

vaal river effluent

Sewage and factory effluent pours from a pump station operated by the Lekwa Local Municipality. (Photo: Supplied)

He remarked that municipalities seemed oblivious to the fact that several sewage-polluted streams flow into the Vaal, one of the main water supply sources for Johannesburg and other major urban settlements in Gauteng.

Rehabilitate and repair

A condition of the Lekwa prosecution agreement is that the R70-million fine will be used to rehabilitate and repair dysfunctional wastewater treatment works in Standerton and other parts of the Lekwa Local Municipality over the next three years.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Power to the people: How an Mpumalanga town took on Eskom and won

Municipal officials will also have to appoint an external auditor and submit detailed reports every three months to Alidzulwi and the national Department of Water and Sanitation on the progress of “urgent and necessary repairs” to municipal wastewater treatment works.

vaal river sewage

Sewage and bacteria fester in a wetland near Standerton, Mpumalanga. (Photo: Supplied)

Lekwa will further be compelled to appoint properly qualified and experienced process controllers at its treatment facilities and to ensure that local industries instal new pre-treatment processes to reduce the level of oils, sludge and inorganic solid matter sent to the municipal treatment works.

Lekwa, represented by municipal manager Malose Johan Lamola, pleaded guilty to seven criminal counts in terms of a plea and sentence agreement under section 105A of the Criminal Procedure Act.

The offences included:

  • Failing to comply with wastewater management licences;
  • Unauthorised disposal of waste;
  • Failure to comply with national government compliance notices;
  • Unlawful water use;
  • Causing significant pollution of the environment;
  • Unlawful or negligent disposal of raw sewer effluent; and
  • Failure to comply with a notice issued under the National Environmental Management Act.

According to the plea and sentencing agreement, most of these offences continued from 2017 to 2021 and were still unresolved.

It states that raw or untreated human sewage had also flowed from at least five municipal pump stations (Stein, Rooikoppen, Johan, Muller and Taljaard streets).

This had led to significant pollution of the environment and groundwater as well as public land, farms and residential areas.

The guilty plea agreement acknowledges that Standerton lies on a large, open plain where much of the polluted water drains into the Vaal River.

wastewater pump station

Wastewater overflows from a pump station. (Photo: Supplied)

While the municipal wastewater system was designed to treat up to 18 million litres of effluent per day, it was evident that the main treatment works and several substations were currently not operational.

Lamola admitted that poor management of the Standerton treatment works had resulted in “significant pollution and degradation of the environment” – including the Vaal River – and numerous spillages on to grazing land and cropland.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Sewage continually draining into Vaal Dam as overburdened, underserviced water treatment plants fail

Not only did the stench of sewage cause a public nuisance, but harmful bacteria also created a health risk for residents of Standerton and neighbouring areas.

The agreement notes that municipalities and other state organs are not immune from transgressions of the Constitution and environmental laws and – like any other business entity – Lekwa was obliged to comply with national water and environmental laws.

sewage standerton

Sewage and factory muck has been flowing into the environment, farmlands and rivers for more than five years because of poor management of municipal wastewater around Standerton. (Photo: Supplied)

“The flagrant, repeated and continued breach of the environmental laws by the accused forced the complainant to act by way of a criminal charge in order to protect and manage the environment to give effect to [constitutional rights to a healthy  environment].”

The formal criminal complaint was laid by Musa Luhlanga, the regional manager for compliance monitoring in the Gert Sibande District Municipality (Ermelo).

A mitigating factor was that Lekwa had expressed commitment to enforcing municipal by-laws to reduce industrial effluent pollution and to keep sewage discharges to the Vaal River to a minimum.

In addition to the R70-million fine, Lekwa has to pay R500,000 to the national Department of Water and Sanitation and the Mpumalanga Department of Agriculture, Rural Development, Land and Environmental Affairs to cover some of the costs of their environmental pollution investigations. DM

To read all about Daily Maverick’s recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • André Pelser says:

    Whose money are they using to pay this fine? What action is being taken against the politicians and officials responsible? Fines imposed on government are at taxpayers expense, the culprits responsible for this environmental disaster are unscathed – how on earth can this situation develop over a period of 5 years?

    • . . says:

      Exactly – until a judge finds elected and civil office personally responsible they will happily smile and pay the fine.

    • andrew farrer says:

      Yes, the municipal manager and mayco should be fined in their personal capacity with a suspended, lengthy, prison sentance if they fail to adhere to the court ruling, AND the court/ blue green scorpions should appoint a competant person to manage this.

  • Bryan Macpherson says:

    Only when Municipal Councillors and Council officials are charged in their own capacities and made to pay the fines will this mess be resolved.

  • Karen Kotschy says:

    Congratulations to the Blue and Green Scorpions team for this successful prosecution. It’s good to hear. Keep at it! The work you do is so important, and we salute you for doing it well!

    It’s astounding and shameful that pollution of this magnitude can continue for years!

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Yip, we, the taxpayer, pay the fine to clean up the mess and pay the ANC to bugger it up again.

  • Deon Botha-Richards says:

    The officials should be charged as Co-culprits in their personal capacity.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    The councillors have a duty of care.

    Surely to heavens individuals will be fired and prosecuted for negligence?!

  • Terril Scott says:

    Why no real consequences. Why no prison time?

  • Grenville Wilson says:

    Another blow to the SA taxpayer!

  • Grenville Wilson says:

    Are the Clowns who run this Lekwa municipality being charged? And if not why not? When is DM going to give us some decent probing journalism? You can’t jail a municipality and pollution of this scale is criminal with dire health threats to all the poor souls living down river! The leadership of the Lekwa municipality should be charged with attempted murder.

  • Norman Thorne says:

    What is the point in fining a municipality that the ANC bankrupted?

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