Molefe Seeletsa
Digital Journalist
3 minute read
10 Nov 2020
2:08 pm

Umbilo River oil spill report reveals dire water quality

Molefe Seeletsa

'It took a catastrophic event like this disastrous Transnet pipeline crude oil spill to bring to light the state of the dying Umbilo River system.'

Umbilo River. Picture: Sandra Streak

The report into the recent oil spill into Umbilo River, which is still being mopped up following a pipeline breach last month, has revealed the poor quality of the water.

Eco-Pulse Environmental Consulting Services, was tasked with compiling the report in terms of Section 30 of the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) 107 of 1998.

“Based on the once-off water quality samples taken by Eco-Pulse during field investigations, it is clear that water quality was ‘poor’ at all sites, driven largely by pre-existing issues in the catchment and degraded further the spill incident.

“Any improvements in water quality following clean-up operations will be limited by existing issues [caused by existing ‘legacy impacts’ that are not related to the oil spill] with limited opportunity to improve water quality in the study area without addressing the various existing pollution issues plaguing the greater Umbilo River catchment,” said the report.

The report was compiled by a team of specialists headed by Adam Teixeira-Leite as principal scientist and ecologist, and Ross Van Deventer and Shaun McNamara, wetland and aquatic ecologists.

The scope of the report covers an area which includes a 300m reach beyond the river itself.

It also includes 2.5km of the Umbilo River downstream of the spill site, where the natural river channel ends as well as the Umbilo canal.

Samples of the water, both above and below the spill time, were taken as part of the report.

In its opening pages, the report – released on 5 November – echoes the sentiments of the Umbilo River Watch group.

“While the assessment clearly shows a notable reduction in biological diversity [fish and macroinvertebrates] and habitat condition downstream of the spill, it is evident from the water quality analysis that pollution entering the study area from the upper Umbilo catchment and emanating from the Umkhumbane River tributary that drains from the informal settlement at Cato Manor have had a significant impact on baseline river health prior to the spill having occurred,” stated the report.

The report says while river health and biological integrity should begin to be seen within six months, which it describes as “relatively quickly” following the clean-up efforts due to the aquatic environment’s innate ability to recover from damage by naturally processing contaminants, the experts warned that unless underlying long-term problems were solved, there was little hope of overall improvement.

“Based on existing water quality impacts from the greater Umbilo and Umkhumbane River catchments, only a small improvement is expected unless these issues are addressed in the near future,” stated the report.

Desiree Laverne, Durban spokesperson for Greenpeace Africa, said the findings in the report were what she had expected.

“I am not at all shocked by the team of specialist scientists’ findings on the state of the Umbilo River System. In fact it confirms what communities have been pleading with the eThekwini council for years,” she said, alluding to the ongoing fight by a community group trying to get the city to attend to the sewerage and pollution spilling into the river system on a daily basis.

“It took a catastrophic event like this disastrous Transnet pipeline crude oil spill to bring to light the state of the dying Umbilo River system,” she said.

Laverne said what was most upsetting was that communities have been trying to get attention paid to the plight of the river for years without being taken seriously.

“It has also taken a team of scientists to make what communities have been saying for years be heard,” she said, commenting on how the report indicated the need for the pollution of the entire river system to addressed and polluting companies be held responsible.

Laverne also said the frequency with which oil spills were taking place worldwide was a symptom of a greater problem.

“This is also an important time to re-look at our unhealthy dependence on fossil fuels,” she said.

This article first appeared on Highway Mail and was republished with permission.

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