Water issues have been a problem in Standerton for years. Pictured is residents protesting in 2014.
Gallo Images / Foto24 / Felix Dlangamandla
Louis Thabethe, the mayor of Lekwa Local Municipality in Standerton, said he had already started repairing the leaking sewerage plants polluting the Vaal River before the court fined the council an astronomical R70 million.
The Standerton Regional Court found the municipality guilty of violating environmental legislation two weeks ago, due to its sewerage plants that had been leaking effluent into the river and streets for many years.
The Vaal River rises near Ermelo and flows in a westerly direction to the Vaal Dam, which feeds industries and households in Gauteng.
AfriForum took samples of its water in Standerton to a laboratory in 2015 and tests revealed that the amount of E. coli and faecal coliform bacteria in it exceeded 1 000 units per 100ml.
Thabethe, who started leading the hung municipality under the banner of the Lekwa community forum after the 2021 local government election, said that the waste treatment plant had been made for 9 megalitres, but was receiving double that amount.
We created extra storage so that sewage doesn’t flow into the Vaal River. Other pump stations in the CBD were dysfunctional and we’d already started spending R20 million on repairing them
“An RDP settlement in section 8 had a problem of sewage flowing back into toilets and a bulk waterline was constructed. These were the things we did when we got into office.”
The Lekwa municipality was found guilty on seven counts, including failure to comply with conditions stipulated in the waste management licence and prohibition of unauthorised waste disposal.
According to the court order, the R70 million fine should be channelled towards repairs and proof of expenditure, while repairs should be submitted to the Mpumalanga department of agriculture, rural development, land and environmental affairs.
The municipality, the court ruled, had to pay an additional R500 000 to that department, as well as to the department of water and sanitation, for liabilities incurred during the investigation process.
According to DA councillor Sithi Silosini, the sewage spill had started in 2009.
“Since then, the affected parties have been raising concerns with the relevant authorities in the municipality. The department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs [Cogta] was approached for intervention and a criminal case was instituted,” she said.
“The DA hopes that this ruling will send a message to Cogta that Lekwa needs its intervention. It’s disappointing to note the way different senior officials in this municipality have compromised the livelihoods of residents.”
Lekwa is the second Mpumalanga municipality to be fined for breaching environmental laws recently.
Last June, the Thaba Chweu Local Municipality in Mashishing (formerly Lydenburg), Mpumalanga, was fined R10 million for allowing sewage to spill into the Dorps River and leaving refuse uncollected.
The municipality had repeatedly ignored complaints about the sewage spillage and the refuse that had been piling up on streets from 2011.
The municipality pleaded guilty of:
. Unauthorised disposal of waste, in contravention of the National Environmental Management Waste Act, by not providing waste containers for residents and failing to collect waste timeously;
. Failure to comply with the conditions stipulated in the water use licence, in contravention of the National Water Act. The municipality operated its wastewater management plants so poorly that this led to the disposal and discharge of raw effluent in a manner that was detrimental to water resources and the health of residents;
. Unlawful water use by digging channels to divert contaminated water without a water use licence;
. Causing significant pollution to the environment by failing to ensure that the five wastewater substations were functioning properly; and
. Unlawful and negligent disposition and distribution of raw, untreated sewage, causing groundwater and environmental pollution on farms.
The court ordered that R4.8 million of the fine be used for urgent repairs and refurbishment of municipal infrastructure, while R200 000 should compensate the department of agriculture, rural development, land and environmental affairs for expenses incurred during the investigation stage of the case
According to the Green Drop 2023 report, nine provinces and 334 municipal wastewater treatment works were identified as being in a critical state last year, receiving Green Drop scores below 31%. These municipalities were placed under regulatory surveillance.