The seawater feeding into the desalination plant at the V&A Waterfront is polluted by raw sewage from the Green Point outfall pipe and is sometimes up to 400% dirtier than specifications the City gave companies that tendered to build the plant.
This is according to Musa Ndlovu, director of Quality Filtrations Systems (QFS), the company that was awarded the contract to build the temporary desalination plant in January last year, when Cape Town was facing the prospect of taps running dry on Day Zero in early April.
Ndlovu said once they had found out about the high level of pollution, it had cost them millions to modify the plant to deal with it.
“The City gave us tender data about the feedwater – everyone that tendered had to work off the same data, not do their own tests – and we designed a plant accordingly. Then when we did tests during commissioning of the plant, we found contaminants that were not in the tender data,” Ndlovu said.
They warned the City, and then spent an additional R7m on installing extra equipment to ensure that the two million litres it produced every day met the national drinking water standards.
Breach of contract
This is one of several areas of dispute between the City of Cape Town and QFS, which has terminated its contract with the City and is now suing the City for R80m for breach of contract and for damages.
In its defence, the City has said a requirement in the tender was that the desalination plant had to be able “to cope with varying sea water quality conditions” likely to be found at the site close to the harbour entrance.
Ndlovu said desalination plants could handle normal variation in seawater quality, which was around 10%. To be on the safe side, the company had opted to build a plant that could cope with 30% variation of the seawater quality data the City had given them.
“But 400% is abnormal. We realised the variation was caused mainly by raw sewage – which the City itself puts into the sea. They didn’t disclose that in the tender specification data, otherwise we would have designed a plant fit for that purpose,” she said.
QFS has expertise in treating water contaminated with sewage: In 2010, it built South Africa’s first direct reclamation plant in drought-stricken Beaufort West, producing 2.3 million litres of drinking water from sewage effluent every day.
Ndlovu said QFS later found out that Leslie Petrik, a professor of chemistry at UWC, had written to the City in September 2017 to say the tender specifications were inadequate to produce safe drinking water, given the proximity to the Green Point sewage outfall pipe and the type of desalination plant specified by the City.
“She warned the City that the tender data excluded sewage contamination, but the City issued the tender in November without this data.”
On March 13 last year, the company’s desalination plant, complete with modifications to deal with the sewage-contaminated water, was ready.
The water it produced was tested by the City’s scientific services and by an independent laboratory, and was found to meet the SA National Standards (SANS) 241 for drinking water quality.
But then nothing happened.
Although Cape Town was still facing Day Zero, and the mid-March dam levels had sunk to 22% of storage capacity, and each Capetonian was restricted to only 50 litres of water a day, the City did not give the company the go-ahead to feed the 2 million litres a day of desalinated water into the system.
QFS wrote to the City several times asking for the go-ahead.
Instead, on March 29, the City’s water and sanitation department issued an instruction to QFS that it had to do a whole range of further lab tests, including tests for sewage contamination, as a “raw water baseline risk assessment requirement”.
The City offered to pay for the extra tests, because it had not been part of the initial requirement, but later said it would not pay.
“It was never a requirement for us to treat sewage contaminants. We had to spend our capital on treating the 400% abnormal feed water variation. Our plant always produced compliant water. They City has never questioned that. The City however decided not to compensate us for our plant upgrade and the high operating cost caused by them dumping sewage into the ocean,” Ndlovu said.
The City eventually gave permission for QFS to inject the desalinated water into the system on May 28 – but only 25% of the 2 million litres.
On September 4, six months after the plant was built and ready, the City finally give permission to inject the full 2 million litres a day into the system.
QFS managing director Herman Smit said the list of additional pollutants the City had told the company to test for was a “full spectrum” sewage analysis.
This proved, he said, that they had known about the sewage contamination.
“This is the only reason they delayed injection into the network. In retrospect they were very scared to accept final water as a result of the raw water sewage contamination, but never divulged knowledge thereof,” Smit said.
The company says the contract stipulates that the City would pay it monthly rental for the availability of the water, whether or not it was buying the water. It says it sent the City invoices for “rental” but these were not paid.
“So many things went wrong. We had five disputes with the City. The contract says if there are disputes the parties must go to mediation. We tried to get the City to go to mediation, but they ignored us. In the end we had to go to the High Court to get an order to force the City to go to mediation,” Ndlovu said.
“And when they arrived, they came with five attorneys and an advocate. From Webber Wentzel. The mediation process was meant to take four days, but it took five months.”
Ndlovu says the City’s advocate conceded in the mediation that it had to pay QFS a monthly rental fee.
QFS wanted a mediation report, but the City said there was to be no report.
“We think they said no mediation report because they knew that it would be evidence.”
Ndlovu said they had been left with no option but to go to court to sue the City for breach of contract for non-payment of rental, and for the extra costs incurred from sewage pollution.
“We are saying to the City: ‘Pay us what you owe us and we will go on our way’.”
Asked to comment on QFS’ claims that the City had made no mention of sewage contamination in the specifications given to companies tendering to build the temporary desalination plant, the City said it rejected any implication that false information had been supplied to anyone “deliberately”.
Councillor Xanthea Limberg, mayoral committee member for water and waste, said the contractor who designed the desalination plant was responsible for “taking cognisance of normal variations in water quality” and for building a plant “robust enough to accommodate raw water quality during all seasonal variations”.
She did not stipulate the percentage of variation the City regarded as “normal”.
Limberg said the seawater data in the tender documentation was from seawater analyses done in September 2017.
“Small areas of the coastal water around Cape Town are contaminated by various pollutants. This is variable and often seasonal.”
This was normal for any city, she said. Sources of contamination were vast and included “urban run-off, household discharge, stormwater discharge, treated effluent discharge from our wastewater works, various marine outfalls, urban litter, etc”.
Limberg said the seawater was tested monthly around the sewage outfalls, and every two weeks at bathing beaches.
She maintains the contract with QFS did not include monthly rental payment.
“QFS was responsible for the cost of establishing the plant, which cost would have been recovered by QFS through the sale of water to the City,” Limberg said.
Ndlovu said the company was disappointed with the City, which had a good reputation, and they had never thought their money might be at risk with a City of Cape Town contract.
“We are trying to understand it. There must be something big behind this. We heard that the V&A desalination plant was Patricia de Lille’s baby. There have been a lot of political wars, and maybe they’re trying to kill it off – but that can’t be done at the expense of a bona fide company,” Ndlovu said.