Our Burning Planet


Cape Town opens new public participation process on historic pumping of sewage into the ocean

Cape Town opens new public participation process on historic pumping of sewage into the ocean
Residents will now have a chance to have their voices heard with a new public participation process relating to the City of Cape Town's application for coastal discharge permits for its marine outfalls. (Photo: Jean Tresfon)

Following complaints over a 2015 public participation process on Cape Town’s pumping of sewage into the ocean, the City is once again taking public comments on the controversial matter.

On Thursday, 21 September, the City of Cape Town opened a new public participation process to allow the public to comment on its historic pumping of sewage into the ocean through its three marine outfalls, located 1.5km offshore in Green Point, Camps Bay and Hout Bay.

This is the second round of public participation being undertaken after the initial process, conducted in 2015, was found to be “inadequate, outdated and should be redone to give effect to the right to just administrative action” by Environment Minister Barbara Creecy, who ordered that the process be held again.

A briefing was held on Wednesday at Camps Bay High School about the controversial matter, ahead of the launch of the public participation process. 

There has been much controversy around this historical practice by the City of Cape Town with large parts of the scientific community, activists, opposition parties, as well as civil society seeking to appeal and challenge the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment’s (DFFE’s) decision to grant Coastal Water Discharge Permits (CWDPs) for these outfalls and the subsequent impact of discharging sewage into the ocean over the years.

Initially, the City of Cape Town claimed that the sewage was “preliminarily treated”. However, the sewage is simply screened through a 3mm grid to remove solids and goes through maceration before being released into the ocean. It is then released into the ocean from points in Green Point, Camps Bay and Hout Bay.

‘Significant environmental impacts’

During the briefing on Wednesday, Zahid Badroodien, Cape Town Mayoral Committee Member for Water and Sanitation, said the City of Cape Town endeavoured to conduct an extensive 60-day public participation process after the minister found that the City could not provide evidence that it had informed the public when the permits were first granted. 

In addition, Badroodien added that they were “proactively including” five land-based wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs), which treat wastewater before releasing it into the ocean, in the public participation process to allow the public to comment on their permit applications. These WWTPs are in Mitchells Plain, Simon’s Town, Oudekraal, Llandudno, and Miller’s Point.

During the 2015 public participation process regarding the CWDPs, extensive inputs and objections were received, however many believed this to have been a tick-box exercise with no responses ever received from the City regarding the outcomes of the submissions.

When the DFFE’s decision to grant the CWDPs was shared earlier this year, the legality was challenged by civic groups and others – including the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) and Action SA – who appealed the decision to grant the permits.

The grounds of their appeal pertained to the facts that there was no evidence that a proper public participation process or risk assessment was conducted; the permit was based on factually incorrect information; the permit contravenes the provisions of the Marine Living Resources Act as discharge was taking place in a Marine Protected Area; the permit contravened the constitutional right to a healthy environment; and the discharge was not in the interests of the whole community.

In her decision on the appeal, Creecy criticised the City of Cape Town over its initial public participation process.

“It need not be emphasised that the permits granted have potentially far-reaching consequences because the discharge of sewage into the ocean can have significant impacts on the environment and public health. It is therefore essential that the public have an opportunity to provide input and feedback on these decisions,” said Creecy. 

‘Anything but transparent’

For years, the City of Cape Town has been operating its marine outfalls through various licences from the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) and in 2014 submitted its application for CWDPs, but the outcome of this application was stalled by about eight years by the national government before the CWDPs were granted.

During the City of Cape Town briefing on Wednesday night, the decade-long delay was attributed to the national authority body issuing these permits having switched from the DWS to the DFEE’s Integrated Coastal Management (ICM) Act. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: City of Cape Town ponders plans to halt pumping of raw sewage into ocean

Below is a timeline of the City of Cape Town’s application process and licencing for operation of its three marine outfalls (each marine outfall is required to have a Water Use License (WUL) and a CWDP):

Marine Conservation Photographer Jean Tresfon said there were over 2,000 objections in 2015 during the initial public participation process and not a single person received a comment, response or reply.

“Eight years later, the discharge permits were issued and no one was (directly) informed, it was anything but transparent so hopefully this time will be better.

“The marine outfalls have been around for over 100 years and to be quite blunt, the poo is coming down the pipe whether we want to or not, and the City has to deal with it. So, they are in a bit of a tough situation,” said Tresfon.

Practical solutions

Tresfon said the outfalls were not going to stop pumping into the sea as we cannot do without them, but what they would like to see is the best real-world practical solution which would probably be implementing packaged treatment plants at the outfalls to treat what was being pumped out to sea.

“There are different forms of treatment – primary, secondary, tertiary – and obviously we’d like to see if it is treated to at least tertiary level. But even the current land-based WWTP, which discharges into the sea, is only treated to secondary level in any case,” said Tresfon.

Caroline Marx, director of environmentalist group RethinkTheStink, along with many others in attendance at the meeting this week, was encouraged by the fact that an extensive public participation process was going to happen and City of Cape Town’s willingness to take their advice and comments into consideration about the process.

“I think this is going to be a very robust process and the legality of these outfalls is going to be challenged. I’m hopeful that in the long term, Minister Creecy will do the right thing and eventually stop the discharge of effluent into our marine protected areas, based on the comments that are made during this public participation period,” said Marx.

Far-reaching consequences of discharge of sewage into the ocean

Since the initial public participation, Badroodien said seven major studies were undertaken by different and independent marine science experts including bacterial samples, toxicity samples, mussel-growth monitoring, animal tissue samples, preliminary biodiversity surveys, chemicals of emerging concern (CEC) studies, dissolved oxygen and detailed numerical modelling.

“This research has been published on the City’s website and shared with key stakeholders over time, and will now be of benefit to refreshed public participation on the outfalls. For access to the reports and findings, scroll down to the Marine Outfalls section,” he said. 

One study was published in December 2022, which found that the outfalls impacted marine-protected areas in Camps Bay, and more particularly that different classes of emerging contaminants were present in sewage released into the marine environment via the Camps Bay marine outfall, in seawater and sediment and in marine invertebrates and plants.

Alternatives to the marine outfalls

In light of the new research and insistence by the civic society to pursue less harmful methods of disposing of this sewage, the City commissioned a scoping study to determine the feasibility and costing of various higher-level pre-treatment interventions at the outfalls. 

At the meeting, City of Cape Town director of Bulk Services, Water and Sanitation Mike Killick gave an update on this. 

Killick said the initial draft study was submitted at the end ofJune 2023 and a revised draft is anticipated by the end of September 2023, which will be shared with the public, addressing solutions to the existing marine outfalls’ shortcomings; how final treated effluent can comply with limits stipulated by the DWS or DFFE in the Water Use License Agreement and upgrading existing infrastructure.

Two main scenarios were investigated for each marine outfall. First was the conveyance of sewage to, as well as the upgrade of, an existing land-based WWTW, and second was the construction of new land-based WWTWs in the vicinity of each outfall. A possible third scenario was also put on the table – extension of the outfalls further out into open ocean. 

Badroodien said, “We’re doing everything we can to do what is necessary to ultimately land something on to the budget in the next few years, so that we can get to cleaning up our water quality. We appreciate all the residents and who have kept me and the officials on our toes in terms of the way we do work in the City of Cape Town, in trying to identify all possible opportunities to improve the way we discharge effluent so that we can ultimately look after the environment and look after human health.”

Details of the new public participation process

Residents now have a chance to have their voices heard with a new and extensive public participation being led by the City of Cape Town, lasting 60 days from 21 September 2023 to 21 November 2023.

Submission of written responses and/or objections in response to the permit applications will be accepted and Badroodien added that residents will also be able to comment or object on the City of Cape Town Have Your Say platform

There will also be five public participation meetings throughout October 2023: 

  1. 3 October 2023 at the Simon’s Town Civic Centre at 17:00.
  2. 5 October 2023 at the Hout Bay Recreation Centre at 17:00.
  3. 7 October 2023 at the Council’s Chambers with the Cape Town Civic Centre at 10:00.
  4. 12 October 2023 at the Rocklands Civic Centre at 17:00.
  5. 24 October 2023 at the Sea Point Hall at 17:00.

A comments response report will then be submitted to Minister Creecy, who will consider the appeals and deal with the merits of the grounds of appeal. 

This comes after a Bays Of Sewage meeting was held on 14 September, where a number of environmental and civic organisations made presentations on their lived experience of the impact of the marine outfalls to keep public pressure on the City of Cape Town.

Speaking at the meeting, NSRI chief executive officer Cleeve Robertson explained he was an emergency physician and diving medical examiner having started his career at Somerset Hospital in the late 1980s when construction of the Greenpoint sewage pipeline began, and raised concern about the health risks of recreational diving, swimming and paddling in an ocean that’s polluted with sewage. DM

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    What is the practical alternative? Has the present system had any discernable effect on Cape Town’s beaches? If so, what?

    • Johan Buys says:

      Besides the visual, smell and ecoli risks in water as well as beach sand, there were studies that showed alarming accumulations of pharmaceutical compounds in plants and invertebrates to hazardous levels. Painkillers, hormone and birth control and some nasties. I think that was Camps Bay.

      Alternatives are limited. Put up waste water treatment plants that treat water to required level before discharge, or they can even go as far as Windhoek and treat sewerage to level that CPT recycles the water back into potable water supply instead of importing water from the Boland, crapping in it and dumping it untreated in the ocean.

      A treatment plant will go down like a lead balloon along the western suburbs.

      Likely they NIMBY the problem by extending the discharge points MUCH further out to sea in the hope that discharge escapes the inshore circulation flows.

      • Bennie Morani says:

        Normal sewage treatment does nothing to remove the “nasties” dissolved in the water. There are ALWAYS impacts that arise from humans living in an urban environment. To carry out advanced treatment would require extremely expensive treatment plants. The CSIR, which still has respected scientists, usually does the monitoring of sea outfalls. Presumably they reported that the impacts from a sea outfall would acceptable.

        • Johan Buys says:

          the scientific studies show the impacts contradict assumptions. More than likely the hourly volumes nowadays are many multiples of 50y ago. In any event, CPT cannot continue decades of more growth on a model of virtually no re-use and rainfall capture.

    • Ben.fredlund says:

      Building a new wastewater treatment plant at these locations is not easy because of space. The most practical way to stop these untreated outfalls is probably to build pumpstations at the outfall sites and pump the sewage to new wastewater treatment plants located where the city has sufficient space to treat it properly.

      The treated effluent would still mostly be discharged to sea, but with much reduced impact. Reuse is also possible but at a higher cost and with certain risks.

  • A Rosebank Ratepayer says:

    Why waste money on public participation? The feedback will be obvious, the same as it was before – fix the problem. There are effective package water water treatment plants that should be investigated and the results shared with public ASAP at these workshops. For example, the green box at the Portswood entrance to the V&A waterfront. This technology uses very little space compared to conventional WWTWs. No one realises it’s even there!

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