City Stink Story

Written by
August 31, 2023
The photo that caused the fuss: the Green Point outfall. Photo: Jean Tresfon
The City of Cape Town, which pumps millions of litres of untreated effluent into the ocean daily has applied for a permit to comply with an Act that is six years old.

Every year, when the offshore southeast winds switch to onshore winter westerlies, Cape Town’s citizenry cry foul and her civil servants get defensive as smelly chum slicks waft towards the shoreline, allegedly from three deep-water marine outfalls off the coast.

But there is a new sense of urgency this year. The city has burgeoned to 3.8 million or more citizens, who must all bath, wash clothes and dishes, and flush away those numbers one and two. After all, we all need to poo. Loadshedding has not helped, with unsubstantiated reports of sewage overflow leaking into drains and rivers when the pumps shut down and the poop keeps on coming.

Recent media coverage and a public outcry - particularly after aerial shots of large plumes by local marine photographer Jean Tresfon - appear to have prompted the City Council to check its paperwork, only to find that the outdated Department of Waste and Sanitation (DWS) licences governing the outflow are not in compliance with the Integrated Coastal Management Act (ICMA) of 2009.

This Act states that “no person is allowed to discharge effluent from sources on land into coastal water except in terms of … a Coastal Waters Discharge Permit”.

So this application to “discharge effluent into the coastal waters” of Cape Town, including Marine Protected Areas, was lodged and a mandatory public participation period announced. You may recall a small advert in the Weekend Argus newspaper 13 days ago. The process runs from 1 June to 10 July.

Public comment has been fierce. People are angry. As a result, in a statement issued on Tuesday by the “Integrated Communication, Branding and Marketing Department”, the City of Cape Town moved to correct “misconceptions” and “clear up confusions” about the permit application.

The City said it was incorrect that the outfalls were running illegally. The “necessary licences and permits for these outfalls have been in place for the past 30 years; this new process is simply the City bringing operations in line with the new regulatory framework”.

The current (outdated) DWS licences allow the discharge of effluent into coastal waters at four locations - Hout Bay, Camps Bay, Green Point and Robben Island. However, in each case, the legally allowed volume falls considerably short of the maximum output the pipes were designed for. Has population pressure already forced the flow to increase towards capacity? It's not easy to control the sphincter when the push is on.

Off Hout Bay, the outfall is designed to discharge 9.8 million litres daily (Ml/d) at a depth of 39 metres 2,162 metres from shore. However, its DWS licence allows for 5.2 million litres. The Camps Bay pipe, which is 1,497 metres from shore, can output 5.5 million litres every day from its outfall 23 metres deep, but the licence stipulates a maximum of 2.3 million litres. Robben Island is tiny in comparison: a design capacity of 90,000 litres per day. There is no licence information for Robben Island, according to the info freely available on the City Council’s website here.

But these outfalls are nothing compared to the grandaddy of them all. This 800mm pipe (a diameter of almost a metre) juts into the ocean 1.7km from the coast at Green Point. This pipe can spew up to 40 million litres of effluent into the sea at a depth of 28 metres - every day. Servicing the waste generated by the urban sprawl from Woodstock to Bantry Bay - via the City Bowl, the harbour, Green Point and Sea Point - the DWS licence limits the outflow to 27.3 million litres per day. That's still a lot of poo if the City is in compliance with the current DWS licence.

Mayoral Committee Member for Utility Services, Councillor Ernest Sonnenberg, told me that the current discharge volumes at each outfall were: Hout Bay (5.2 million litres per day Ml/d from approximately 34,000 people); Green Point (30 Ml/d from approximately 164,000 people); and Camps Bay (2,5 Ml/d from approximately 22 000 people)."

"With regard to population pressure, the capacity of the infrastructure in an area is considered as part of the City planning process. Applications for new development will only be approved if infrastructure/licences allow for it," he said.

He said that the Discharge Permit would enable the City to run the outflow of all three outflows at maximum capacity but that "there is still capacity left before they reach the maximum".

Hout Bay Outfall: Not so lekker. Photo: Jean Tresfon

Councillor Sonnenberg said that Llandudno and Miller’s Point were tested for water quality once a week and Green Point, Hout Bay and Camps Bay were tested daily.

Many people know that sewage is pumped into the sea around Cape Town. Surfers who have ridden Thermopylae in Green Point have all complained of e-coli sickness over the years, especially before the 1993 project to extend the pipe 1.7 km out to sea after a 1989 storm damaged it. Despite repeated denials from the City, who say people get sick from stormwater pollution and not from the outfalls, there are many ocean sports people who adamantly stand by their belief that it comes from sewage.

However, other people will remind you that coastlines all around the world are faced with this problem, from Sydney to Barcelona, and even New York.

But few realise that if the pipes around Cape Town are running at maximum capacity, 55 million litres of untreated effluent would pour into the ocean every single day. And by effluent, I don’t just mean sewage, but grey water. That means the water from your shower, your dishwasher, your sink, and your washing machine - everything that is flushed down plug holes, sinks, and drains.

Yes, the grey water dilutes the raw materials a bit. But poop is poop: untreated fecal matter direct from toilet to sea. Other elements are commonly found in grey water, such as paracetamol flushed out in urine (causes infertility in male mammals, including dolphins) or even oestrogen flushed out in the urine of women on the pill. Oestrogen released into rivers in the UK has resulted in fish being feminized - changing sex from male to female.

The City does screen the effluent, blocking the larger scatological remnants of the human sump, such as nappies and sanitary towels. In Tuesday’s statement, the City felt the need to educate the public because “fear surrounding this method derives from a lack of understanding surrounding outfall technology, thus we feel an explanation of the method is necessary”.

A diffusion system at the outfall exit “rapidly dilutes” the effluent to “at least a 100:1” (parts ocean water to effluent), which “instantly results in a very substantial contaminant reduction”. The rest is taken care of by currents and dispersion, the City says.

A press release from 2009 says the Green Point outfall got a R20million facelift (partly to cope with the expected influx of visitors to the 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup). They replaced the screen with a 3mm stepped screen. Its role was to break down solid waste into tiny bits. They also replaced the “odour control system”.

However, anecdotal evidence from kayakers, surfers and other ocean users suggest that the screening, diffusion and dispersion do not always work as designed.

There have been many posts on social media about pieces of crap found floating in Table Bay, and they are certainly bigger than screened scraps with a dimension of 3mm x 3mm. Recent sightings of the giant plumes provide a disturbing picture that volumes might be at their limit, and the sewage disposal strategy of the City should at the very least come under deeper scrutiny - certainly when it concerns efforts to find alternatives.

For instance, a question in the City’s application for Hout Bay’s discharge permit here asks “Do alternatives exist other than to discharge the effluent into the coastal environment?” The answer provided by Kevin Samson (Manager: Waste Water, Water and Sanitation Department) is "NO". The next question “If alternatives to discharge exist, please provide details:” the answer is "None".

There are scientists who might disagree, such as Leslie Petrik (PhD), Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at UWC. Professor Petrik has made ground-breaking strides with other scientists on using nanoscience and nanotechnology for environmental remediation.

Poop off Green Point back in 2015. Kayaker Karen Watkins took this photograph offshore.

In her capacity as a specialist in water treatment, she recently wrote to the City urging it to reconsider the application for a Discharge Permit, and to “seriously recommend that other alternatives are sought”.

The City should read a paper she published with colleagues last year: “a review of combined advanced oxidation technologies for the removal of organic pollutants from water”. Read it on Research Gate.

For the past six years, she has independently set up the Environmental and Nano Science (ENS) group at UWC. Their work includes ways to disinfect contaminated effluent water and removal of organics through composite photocatalysts and electrohydraulic discharge systems. Read her biography on the UWC website here.

Her letter to the City warns that “persistent organic pollutants” not decomposed in conventional treatment plants “have very negative impacts on the receiving environment and are PROVED to cause feminization of fish populations, exterminating fish in one generation, as well as causing deformities, cancer and genetic changes in many species as well as humans”.

She said that their recent work (funded by the SA Water Research Commission) “has shown that many partially metabolised prescription drugs, pesticides, herbicides, household disinfectants and even paracetemol and caffeine are passing unchanged through the local effluent treatment systems in the Western Cape”.

“When you consider the volumes of these compounds being discharged into sewerage waste waters, we are confronting a huge environmental disaster of unforeseen magnitude.”

As an example, she writes that recent findings show that paracetamol taken for five days during pregnancy “will sterilize your male fetus”. Just like that.

“Can you imagine how much paracetamol is being released in our effluents on a daily basis?” she asked. The amounts of paracetamol had not been quantified, and yet the problem was clearly being ignored if a Discharge Permit was being sought, she writes.

Professor Petrik urged the City to “focus efforts and funds on designing and building proper treatment systems using combined systems, such as we are busy developing” that “made possible the reuse of the water.” She claimed that “severe water shortages” would occur in the coming years and efforts to prevent “the release of these harmful compounds and recover the water now will pay dividends in the future”.

Tresfon, an award-winning photographer and gyrocopter pilot known for his beautiful aerial shots of the Cape Peninsula, has been instrumental in generating public awareness to pressurise the council. Tresfon is at pains to say he is not an expert, but what he does know is this. He has been flying his Magni M16 Gyrocopter two or three times a week around the Cape Peninsula for years, taking photos of marine wildlife, including sharks, tuna, whales and big shoals of game fish.

While up there, he’s noticed and photographed vast plumes of brown or milky water seeping into the ocean off Green Point, Camps Bay and Hout Bay. He says the plumes are getting worse every year. He says that this year, it’s the worst it has ever been. “At Camps Bay, the effluent is washing right back at the shore.”

Recent experiences of ocean users suggest that the negative impact Professor Petrik speaks about is beginning to gather momentum.

Businessman Eddie Bisset, a keen kayaker, found this out at his peril. After doing an eskimo roll in Three Anchor Bay at the end of April, he got violently ill. Bisset, 62, owner of Herbex and New Group companies, didn’t take it lying down. With his attorney Fawn Gliddon, he has actively sought answers from the City and the Department of Environmental Affairs.

He even commissioned an e-coli test at Three Anchor Bay that returned a level of 300 cfu (colony forming unit) per 100ml of sea water. This is 50 over the limit of the maximum level for a Blue Flag beach, and that was on a much cleaner day with offshore breezes taking the sewage away from the coast.

Kayaker Karen Watkins photographed what she has claimed is fecal matter last weekend while kayaking off Green Point. Tracy Fincham, who owns Kaskazi Kayaks in Three Anchor Bay, got sick at the same time of the year in 2014 after performing multiple eskimo rolls during a kayak. A fresh westerly wind was blowing. “I struggled a bit, so got water in my mouth and sinuses. I was very sick after that. I can’t say it was because of the sewage, but the water was very bad that day,” she said.

Tresfon knows it’s poo. As a pilot and competent boat skipper, Tresfon is familiar with navigation and marking waypoints via GPS co-ordinates. He knows the location of the plumes he has photographed. He knows the location of the outfalls. They match. He has also seen the plumes right at the shoreline.

In response to the photos and the public uproar, the city said in yesterday’s statement: “We can confidently state that our infrastructure is intact and that neither of the marine outfalls (Green Point and Hout Bay) experienced any major incidents to cause such a plume (as photographed by Tresfon - ed). Despite this, we will continue to assist in establishing what the cause of the plume was (for example, surface discharge from passing ships).”

In response to the photos and the public uproar, the city said in yesterday’s statement: “We can confidently state that our infrastructure is intact and that neither of the marine outfalls (Green Point and Hout Bay) experienced any major incidents to cause such a plume (as photographed by Tresfon). Despite this, we will continue to assist in establishing what the cause of the plume was (for example, surface discharge from passing ships).”

Passing ships? Really?

The City said it had referred the photographs to the Department of Environmental Affairs, “as they are responsible for monitoring the quality of the marine zones. The City is assisting where possible to resolve the matter. From the City’s side, specialist diving teams inspected the outfalls in March and May 2015 and found no irregularities.”

Tresfon stands by his viewpoint, even though it is anecdotal. Repeated contact with the sewage, and not just from the air, but from exploration by boat and kayak, leaves him in little doubt.

“You can smell it a kilometre away already. When you get to it, it is utterly revolting.”

He relates an experience he had in March that he found deeply disturbing: “I joined an international team including the publisher and founder of Ocean Geographic, Michael AW, with a permit from the government to dive with a pod of Southern Right whales that are believed to be permanently resident in Cape Town waters (a first since the cessation of whaling in the mid 1970s), and to photograph and film them.

“There was a massive proliferation of krill, and the whales were feeding in among the vessels. Unfortunately, they were in the area of the Green Point outlet. We could smell it. We could see the outlet. There were turds drifting by our boat. It was highly embarrassing for me because I was trying to show off my city to world famous wildlife photographers.”

He relates examples of council playing down the sightings, or at the least questioning their veracity, possibly due to the potentially scary implications of how much it would cost to fix properly.

“On a day last month when the Table Bay plume was particularly bad I posted a photo to Facebook, which got picked up on Twitter and forwarded to 567CapeTalk Radio who contacted the City of Cape Town. The response was basically one of denial, suggesting it was not sewage because there were no seagulls in the picture. Well, I zoomed in on the high res photos, and there they were, huge flocks of seagulls.”

“They can deny it all they like, but I know its sewage. Look, this city is the best run city in South Africa, and I am quite sorry to be taking them on like this. The City has done some amazing work in many fields, but they have drastically dropped the ball on this issue.”

“Ever since there has been media interest, not one person from the City has asked to talk to me, or to study my photos. That's concerning.”

This was why it was so critical that the public push hard over the next month to tip the scale on the side of public pressure versus the cost of the alternatives the city claims do not exist. “They mobilised the money and land to build a hugely expensive stadium for one event, why can’t they find a solution to this? And in 10 years time, when the ocean is screwed, what’s the cost then?”

“The first prize is to send comment that is not mere objection or outrage, but constructive pressure. Ask the hard questions.”

“I am not a sewage engineer and don’t have all the answers. However, I feel that to just continue as we are is completely unacceptable. Quite aside from the environmental implications of 55 million litres per day of effluent being pumped into our oceans, it is really not on to have the stuff bubbling to the surface and blowing back onto our beaches and coastline. Surfers, divers, kayakers and swimmers have been getting really sick. That’s a fact.

“I am just one photographer reporting what I see, but you have a huge community of watermen that could really be heard. The comment period is only open for another month and this is our one chance to make a difference. I have no doubt that the pumping is not going to stop if the City continues to claim there is no economically viable alternative.

“But this is 2015, there are some very new and exciting technologies out there for dealing with this. And if we cannot treat the sewage then we should be pumping it further away from the coast, or using tankers to dump it in the deep. Something needs to change. Huge exponential increases in the population of the city mean that the increased volumes of untreated effluent pumped into the sea are becoming unsustainable and are no longer environmentally acceptable."

Make your voice heard, but please do it constructively.