Thursday, March 29, 2007

Toxic Sludge

By Heinz de Boer and Bhavna Sookha

Fears are growing that the lucrative Easter season will be a non-event for thousands of tourists who normally flock to KwaZulu-Natal's premier holiday resort, Ballito, which is still covered in a foul-smelling "blanket" of toxic sludge and raw sewage.

Bathing has been banned and disaster management officials from the KwaDukuza Municipality have strict instructions to bar the public from Ballito's beaches, which are considered a major health hazard. Government officials have also warned lovers of sea food to steer "well clear" of any shellfish collected in the region.

Jeff Gaisford of KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife said "contamination of local shellfish like crayfish and mussels has made eating seafood harvested in the region an extremely risky business".

"We are strongly advising people not to catch shellfish along the coast. They are are filter feeders and ecoli tends to build up in their gut. If the shellfish is not cooked properly the person ingesting it will become ill. Some people even eat certain shellfish like mussels raw, and this is very dangerous."

To avoid a health crisis officials have also vaccinated 200 lifeguards and municipal workers against hepatitis and tetanus.

The warnings come more than a week after the massive seas totally destroyed three sewerage pump stations near Ballito and damaged a further six. While at least four have since been repaired and are partially operational, sewage that would have been collected and pumped to processing plants is instead flowing on to beaches. The foul- smelling sludge is reportedly floating about 100m out to sea and is spreading along a 2km stretch of coast.

Chief fire officer for the region, Adrian Barnes, said the smell and effluent spread was dependent on tides and wind direction. "Teams have been working flat out to control the situation. Unfortunately soak pits and septic tanks that were washed away from holiday homes are also discharging sewage onto the beaches, and that's why we are keeping them closed. Our concern is to keep the public, and especially children, away from puddles of sewage and streams.

"Everything we are removing from the beach is also being treated as toxic and is being dumped separately," Barnes said.

Siza Water, who manages the Dolphin Coast's sewerage infrastructure, have confirmed that their teams are busy replacing more than 100m of damaged sewerage piping. MD Robert Giron said it could take three weeks to normalise the situation.

"A lot also depends on restoring the electricity supply to the renaming stations. We are fortunate that it is mainly residential sewage that is not coupled with industrial waste," Giron said.

Lin Gravelet-Blondin from the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry said: "It is fortunate that the sea does not usually take a permanent knock from incidents like this." He also said ecoli didn't survive well in the sea due to the high saline levels but urged people not to fish or eat fish from the affected areas.

    • This article was originally published on page 1 of Daily News on March 29, 2007
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