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Documents that came to light yesterday, through the Promotion of Access to Information Act, show the department sent a letter to eThekwini city manager S’bu Sithole last month after a sewage leak killed fish in the Isipingo river mouth in January.
In the letter, on February 7, the department’s regional head, Ashley Starkey, said there had been spills in the river mouth since 2006 which appeared to be linked to ‘failing sewerage infrastructure’.
Starkey said although the estuary had been degraded over the past 60 years, recent studies had raised concern about the pollution and bacterial contamination at Isipingo.
The estuary was also degraded from high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, along with litter from the Prospecton Canal, which passed through Prospecton, which was heavily industrialised.
‘The department cannot allow the estuary to be managed at this ecologically unacceptable level,’ said Starkey, who invited the city to respond within 30 days.
He asked eThekwini to provide a timeframe regarding when they would take action in line with the Isipingo Estuary Management Plan.
He also wanted the city to assess all the sewerage infrastructure in the Isipingo catchment area and report on plans to refurbish them.
Starkey said if his department was compelled to issue a formal directive to the city and if the city failed to comply with it, it could take further steps, including criminal action.
The warning letter came to light after the Centre for Environmental Right and the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance requested access to several government records through the Promotion of Access to Information Act.
Starkey’s letter was among the documents released to the groups yesterday.
The Mercury also requested copies of similar documents from the municipality two months ago, but only received a very limited selection from the city that did not include Starkey’s correspondence.
In response to the notice, the eThekwini water and sanitation unit challenged Starkey’s contention that sewage leaks were caused by failing infrastructure. ‘Our experience is that the cause of sewage spills is actually acts of theft and vandalism,’ it said.
Mohammed Dildar, the acting head of the city’s water and sanitation department, added that his department was waiting for the council and the MEC for Environmental Affairs to approve a draft estuary management plan.
The Mercury was unable to contact Starkey to clarify whether his department’s concerns (and the threat to prosecute) had been resolved.