There is continued unlawful spillage, mainly sewage, into waterways that run into the Vaal river from the Emfuleni region, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) was told on Wednesday, during the final sitting of its inquiry into the contamination of the river.
South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and Remediation Intervention Team commander Colonel Andries Mahapa was providing the SAHRC with an update on the defence force's work to resolve the pollution of the river.
He told the inquiry that the first priority − the repair of the Sebokeng wastewater treatment plant, which was built in 1957, as well as four pump stations − was expected to be completed by April.
Department of Water and Sanitation Gauteng provincial head Sibusiso Mthembu said R20-million had been secured to refurbish five pump stations, with a further 39 pump stations that require refurbishment still to be funded.
Through reprioritising budget, R240-million has been allocated to the Remediation Intervention Team, which is set to wrap up its work by March 2020.
The total cost of the rehabilitation project is expected to be R1.1-billion, he said.
Mahapa added that the Remedial Intervention Team expected to complete 90% of the work by the end of the operation, which included developing the skills and capacity to operate and maintain the refurbished treatment plants and stations.
A lack of operational and maintenance work and ageing infrastructure were contributing factors to the pollution of the river, as were theft and vandalism, Mahapa said, adding that human resource gaps had also been identified in the Emfuleni municipality. Part of the SANDF's intervention was training local tradespersons to operate the plants and stations.
In a separate presentation, a whistleblower provided detailed input to the inquiry about insufficient controls to prevent chemical spillage through the water and stormwater systems at an industrial facility into a tributary of the Vaal river.
The whistleblower added that the tests done on the water prior to treatment and discharge did not monitor for the chemicals that entered the water reclamation system, which were harmful to people and aquatic animals and could impact on the effectiveness of the industrial facility's biological water treatment process.
Meanwhile, in its presentation to the inquiry, ArcelorMittal South Africa (AMSA) group environmental manager Siegfried Spanig and AMSA Vanderbijlpark environmental manager Johan Hattingh provided detailed feedback about the impact of its plant on the waterways leading into the river, noting that the company had transitioned to zero effluent discharge (ZED) in 2005, which also formed part of its water use licence.
The Vanderbijlpark plant produces about 2.6-million tonnes a year of steel and uses 3 000 l of water to produce 1 t of steel − comparing well against international benchmarks − and abstracted its water higher up from the river at the Letabo weir, said Spanig.
Hattingh said the company had reduced its water intake by about 55% compared with a 2004 baseline, and provided a detailed account of the three most recent spills, only one of which led to water entering the river at a conductivity rating of 2 000 microsiemens compared with the required drinking water conductivity of around 1 700 micosiemens.
He estimated that the spill contributed to the volume of water flowing in the river by about 0.1%, and said his assessment was that the impact had been minimal. The effluent discharged before the transition to ZED typically had a conductivity of 3 200 to 3 600 microsiemens and contained mainly inorganic compounds such as salts.
The company had also updated its processes and practices after the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled against it in 2014. It also monitors its water and air quality, as well as holding bimonthly and quarterly meetings with civic and nongovernmental associations that are open to all interested parties, Spanig said.