Saturday, 10 November 2012

Hefty fine for Mossel Bay Municipality re desalination plant

The department of Environmental Affairs is particularly concerned over the potential impact of brine discharges by the Mossel Bay desalination plant on White Sharks, an apex predator critical to the functioning of the ecosystem in the bay. Shark numbers are especially high at Seal Island where they play an important economic role and are crucial for research purposes.

MOSSEL BAY NEWS - The Mossel Bay Municipality was fined R92 000 for commencing with the building of the desalination plant ahead of a formal environmental impact assessment (EIA).

Due to the devastating drought in 2009/2010, and as it formed part of the long term water supply planning, the municipality considered its options and responsibilities and decided to build the plant to safeguard its community against the effects of the drought.

However, the EIA that was done since indicate a possible negative effect on marine life in the immediate vicinity of the outlet pipe, therefore the Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning levied an administrative fine, which the municipality must settle before the department's final decision on the plant is released.

According to the municipal manager, Dr Michele Gratz, the municipality will appeal this decision.

The drought of 2009 and 2010 was the worst in the Southern Cape in more than 130 years. The Eden District Municipality declared the Garden Route region in a state of disaster and asked National Government for help in responding to the looming water shortage crisis.

The Mossel Bay Municipality placed restrictions on water use and reduced monthly water use by almost 50%. However, water levels in the dams continued to fall and by October 2010, the Wolwedans Dam level was 15%. It was estimated that the dam could run dry by the end of 2010 and the municipality needed to take immediate action to ensure on-going water supply.

The municipality considered its options and concluded that the only viable solution was a seawater desalination plant. The plant could be built within nine months and does not rely on rain and run-of-river supplies.

At the time, seawater desalination also formed part of Mossel Bay's existing future water supply planning and so, while it could help overcome the immediate drought emergency, it could also help realise a part of the future water supply plan.
Building a seawater desalination plant is a regulated activity in terms of the National Environmental Management Act (Act 107 of 1998) (NEMA), the Integrated Coastal Management Act (Act 24 of 2008), the National Water Act (Act 36 of 1998) and the National Heritage Resources Act (Act 25 of 1999), and thus requires authorisation before constructing such a plant.

Due to the drought, the municipality could not wait for these permissions because the town could run out of water during the long period it would take to get the authorisation. The unauthorised commencement of a listed activity identified in the EIA Regulations is, however, an offence in terms of Section 24 F (2) of NEMA and therefore, starting to build the desalination plant, although planned, remained unlawful.

However, NEMA Section 24F(3) also states that 'It is a defence to a charge to show that the activity was commenced or continued in response to an emergency so as to protect human life, property or the environment'.

On this basis, the municipality liaised with the relevant government departments and agreed to do an EIA at the same time it built the desalination plant. This is known as a Section 24G EIA, which is officially titled a 'Rectification of unlawful commencement of activity'.

In order to conclude a Section 24G process, NEMA Section 24G (2A) states that an applicant must pay an administrative fine, which may not exceed R1-million and which must be determined by the competent authority, before the Minister or MEC concerned may issue a final decision. In this regard, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning have served the Mossel Municipality with a R92 000 administrative fine, in terms of Section 24G (2A).

All registered I&APs, as well as the Mossel Bay Municipality have until 20 November to lodge an intention to appeal with the Department with regards to the notification of the fine by the Department, and the municipality intends to appeal against the fine.

The EIA concluded that:
* There was a need for an emergency bulk water supply project and desalination was the best option for this.

* Whilst the municipality did not have the required permission from the various government departments, they went about the construction of the plant in a responsible manner and in line with the required process to address this.

* If all recommended management and mitigation measures are applied, the overall environmental impact is unlikely to be significant.

* It is essential that the significance of the impacts on the marine ecosystem be confirmed through an Initial Marine Monitoring Programme (IMMP) and reassessment, and that this is used to modify the plant operations if necessary. The implementation of the IMMP and the reassessment of the impacts on the marine life after follow-up biological surveys is a critical recommendation coming out of the EIA.

* The operation of the desalination plant could have a number of positive cumulative or indirect impacts, including reducing the amount of water taken from rivers, making more water available for farming, allowing the town to overcome even more severe droughts and delaying the need for new bulk water supply infrastructure (such as new dams).
The potential effect of the brine discharge on White Sharks was a concern of the department and contributed to the increased biodiversity impact index and as a result, the administrative fine was increased from R62 000 to R92 000.

The outlet pipe for the desalination plant is located approximately 440m offshore at a depth of eight metre. The department was particularly concerned over the potential impact of brine discharges on White Sharks, an apex predator and critical to the functioning of the ecosystem in the bay. Shark numbers are especially high at Seal Island, where they play an important economic role and are crucial for research purposes.

There are, however, according to the EIA, no foreseeable or actual pollution released into the bay or into the Estuary.
Four potential sites, the Mossel Bay harbour, old whaling station, Klein Brak Beach parking lot and adjacent to the existing Waste Treatments Works, were initially investigated for the project. Due to the urgency of the project's implementation and the time constraints, no detailed assessment of these alternative sites were undertaken, as would happen under normal circumstances.

The preferred site was chosen as, significantly, the seawater intake pipe runs off shore in the general direction of Seal Island. The island is used to shelter the intake, moderating the uptake of debris, sediments and other contaminants that occur in high concentrations in the open and otherwise turbulent ocean. The brine water pipeline follows the same route as the intake pipeline, but only extend half the distance. The plant is also situated within the existing PetroSA compound, allowing the structure to blend in with the existing surrounds.


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