Water at what price?

:The impact of the sludge spill on the Eerste River adjacent to the drilling site can be clearly seen. Thick yellow sludge coats the river bed, while upstream the water is clear.

In a desperate race to augment the potable water supply for Stellenbosch, the Stellenbosch Municipality may well have transgressed environmental legislation and water law.

Jonkershoek Road residents Andrew and Hayley Hagen told Bolander on Saturday January 27 that they had spotted a drilling rig drilling a borehole right next to the Eerste River in the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve.

Bolander visited the drilling site later that day, and confirmed in a conversation with the rig supervisor, who declined to furnish his name, that the borehole was being drilled for the Stellenbosch Municipality. He was also unable to confirm whether or not environmental approval had been secured for the drilling operation, which since it is located in a protected natural environment immediately adjacent to a sensitive riparian ecosystem, would be a legal requirement.

Bolander’s enquiries revealed that four boreholes are to be drilled in Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, the last of 25 in total that the municipality is apparently drilling.

On Thursday February 1, Mr Hagen contacted Bolander again to say that there had been a drilling sludge spill into the Eerste River sometime between Wednesday and Thursday morning, and that the river was affected some 20 to 30 metres upstream of the drilling site, and all the way down river to the Kleinplaas balancing dam that feeds water to the Stellenbosch Municipality purification works.

Drilling rigs use a chemical-laced mud slurry to lubricate the drill during drilling operations, the impact of which on the Eerste River riparian ecosystem is unknown at this time.

Bolander spoke to Professor Nebojsa Jovanovic, principal researcher in natural resources and the environment at the CSIR in Stellenbosch on Friday, who said the potential impact of the sludge spill is difficult to predict without analysis of a water sample.

Professor Jovanovic undertook to visit the nature reserve and to take water samples for analysis, the results of which will be furnished to Bolander once complete.

Further enquiries led Bolander to speak to Tommy Eckley, of MTO Jonkershoek, a forestry company that leases the plantations in Jonkershoek Nature Reserve from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DWAFF) and Stellenbosch Municipality, who between them own various portions of the land in the nature reserve.

Mr Eckley, who is the MTO forester for the area, confirmed that four boreholes were being drilled on land under lease to MTO, and that it had emerged that permission had initially only been granted for two of the drilling sites.

When it was found post-facto that all four drilling sites were on MTO leased land, permission was granted for the other two as well, but Mr Eckley stressed that this only constituted permission to drill on land under lease to MTO, and not to abstract groundwater, since licensing for groundwater abstraction is a Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) competency.

Mr Eckley expressed surprise when Bolander told him of the sludge spill into the Eerste River.

“I did have a meeting with the drilling operator, and MTO’s environmental consultant. It was made clear that they have to take all necessary precautions against an event of this sort,” he said, “and it seems they have not done so.

“I’m also surprised that they did not immediately report the spill to me, as they are obliged to do.”

Mr Eckley told Bolander he would be meeting urgently with the drilling contractor to discuss the matter.

Bolander submitted a detailed set of questions to the office of the executive mayor of Stellenbosch, Gesie van Deventer, last Thursday morning, and as enquires progressed, sent a number of follow-up questions.

Despite granting an extension until 10am Monday morning for a response, Bolander had received no communication by the time of going to print.

The questions that remain unanswered are:

How many boreholes are planned, how many have been drilled, and where are they located?

Does the municipality have environmental approval to proceed, in the form of a record of decision from the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEADP) and Development Planning, as the result of either an environmental impact assessment or a basic assessment report?

If no such approval was granted, under what authority has the drilling proceeded?

Has the impact of abstraction on the underlying aquifer been properly assessed?

Has the planned abstraction of groundwater from the underlying aquifer been licensed by DWS?

Does the municipality have approval from DWS to drill adjacent to a surface water body, to whit the Eerste River?

Does the municipality have an environmental management plan in place for these drilling operations?

“While I understand that with the drought we face in the Western Cape, alternative water sources must be found to augment what we have, this must be done in an environmentally sensitive manner but that does not seem to be the case here,” Ms Hagen said to Bolander on Friday afternoon.

A follow-up story is planned for next week, which will incorporate any response forthcoming from the office of the Stellenbosch mayor.