Disposal of land-derived effluent into coastal waters in South Africa
24 June 2015
The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has noted the recent media coverage on effluent disposal into the coastal environment and would therefore like to clarify the current legislative requirement, including initiatives it has undertaken to effectively regulate such disposal.
The disposal of land-derived effluent into coastal waters was previously authorised by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (now the Department of Water and Sanitation) under the National Water Act, 1998 (Act No. 36 of 1998) (NWA) via a Water Use Licence. Such licenses prescribed specific conditions for the treatment and disposal of the effluent, together with limits for the volume and constituents.
In 2008, Government promulgated the National Environmental Management: Integrated Coastal Management Act, 2008 (Act No. 24 of 2008) (ICM Act) in order to improve the conservation and sustainable management of South Africa’s coastal environment. The administration of this Act is led by the DEA. Under the ICM Act, anyone wishing to discharge effluent from a land-based source into coastal waters must apply to the Department for a coastal waters discharge permit. It is the intention of such permits to replace the requirements that exist under the Water Use Licenses.
At present, there are 121 existing effluent discharge outfalls nationally that were formerly authorised by the Department of Water and Sanitation. These outfalls will require a thorough assessment before any authorisation is granted by the DEA in terms of the ICM Act.
The DEA is currently carrying out a national review and assessment of all existing coastal effluent discharge outfalls to proactively identify areas where improvements are needed. It has developed an assessment framework that will enable it to thoroughly assess the permit applications. It has also recently published a new set of coastal water quality guidelines that are aimed at protecting recreational users of the coast, as well as guidelines for the responsible disposal of effluent into coastal waters. Ultimately, these initiatives are all aimed at managing the health and sustainability of our coastal waters.
As reported in the press, the City of Cape Town operates three offshore outfalls that were authorised by the Department of Water and Sanitation. As part of its application for coastal waters discharge permits, the City is required to undergo a public participation process. This was previously not a requirement in the case of the NWA Water Use Licenses. In the interim, whilst the DEA considers applications for discharge permits, compliance with the Water Use License conditions must nevertheless be adhered to.
With reference to public complaints received regarding the Green Point marine pipeline, the Department has consulted the City and requested that the pipeline be inspected to ensure it is operating optimally.
The DEA has taken the view that the disposal of effluent into coastal waters can be considered a viable option provided that it is conducted in an environmentally sustainable manner and does not adversely affect other beneficial uses of the marine environment. The requirements of the coastal aquatic ecosystem, as well as the requirements of the beneficial uses of coastal water resource, will ultimately inform how a particular discharge is managed.
Each outfall is unique and the potential environmental impact thereof depends on several factors, such as the location of the discharge, the effluent load and type, level of treatment applied, sensitivity of the receiving environment, infrastructure integrity, achievable dilution and so forth. These factors will be taken into account by the Department as it considers applications for discharge permits.
The DEA prefers the discharge of effluent via an offshore pipeline into an assimilative marine environment as compared to an outfall in sensitive coastal areas such as the surf zone or estuaries. Holders of discharge permits are required to comply with a set of effluent quality standards as well as water quality standards that are set to protect the receiving environment and other coastal users. The responsibility to monitor the quality of effluent and the impacts on the receiving environment is that of the permit holder.
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