There have been at least three major chemical spills along the Duzi River this year, but only one resulted in legal consequences.
That’s because of the difficulty in proving who is responsible, said Msunduzi Municipality’s spokesperson Thobeka Mafumbatha. In the matter that was legally dealt with, the spill was caused by an industry. The company was made to clean and rehabilitate the river at a cost of over R1 million.
Mafumbatha said last month there was a discharge in the river near Ashdown. The red substance was identified as oil based — used for pneumatic tools. “This illegal discharge may have been caused by a resident [from a bucket or drum], and unlikely from a mechanical workshop,” she said.
The biggest challenge when it comes to finding the culprit is obtaining credible evidence that can be used for a successful prosecution. Pollution in a stream or river might not be as a result of the direct disposal of hazardous materials into a water course, but rather as the consequence of a land-based spill caused by an incident that has occurred some distance from the water course.
She added that the cleaning up of hazardous substances is expensive and time consuming.
Time is of the essence and someone has to initiate the call to appoint a company and is then deemed to be responsible for settling the account.
In the event where the culprit is known, they must pay for the clean-up. However, the culprit is not always known and the account would then have to be settled by the municipality. She emphasised that there are not many incidents of chemical pollution of water, the microbiological pollution of the Duzi (E. coli or faecal pollution) poses a bigger challenge.
Notices are generally issued to residential and business premises for illegal discharges into the stormwater. The discharges are at times deliberate and the common problems relate to illegal plumbing and building works.
Most often contravention notices are served on offenders, and legal action is taken for non-compliance where fines range from R500 to R4 500.
Rico Euripidou, environmental health campaigner at Groundwork, said that spillages occur more often than they have the capacity to monitor them. “However, spillages implies accidents. I don’t think it is only accidents that releases pollutants into the Duzi. I think there are many undocumented instances of industries deliberately dumping their waste into the river because monitoring and prosecution is such an unlikely outcome of doing so.”
Euripidou said that any industry or activity that disrupts or changes the physical and chemical composition of the Duzi water quality will impact on its overall health. This includes pollution from agro-chemicals and pesticides used in the agricultural sector, waste water or effluents from industry.
To curb pollution, he said more awareness needs to be created and there need to be stronger systems to detect pollution, investigate and act on it. This includes prosecuting entities or people that deliberately pollute the river. Pollution of the Duzi is problematic, he said. None of the directors or company owners are criminally charged and this creates a bad precedent.
Similarly, The Department of Water Affairs and the local municipality have been largely unsuccessful in their attempts to use regulatory means to address chronic pollution of the Duzi. The industry has also proven unable to self-regulate.
“More importantly this situation highlights a massive failure and shortcoming in our environmental regulatory and compliance system in South Africa — where there is no accountability nor prosecutions as a result of this transgression.”
Euripidou added that while the laws are good generally, the weak links are in the compliance, oversight and enforcement of them.