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Residents fume over sludge fire


The fire broke out on Wednesday, sending massive plumes of acrid smoke into the air over Kimberley

FIGHTERS: The fire department is continuing with efforts to extinguish the fire at the sludge ponds of Homevale Treatment Plant. Picture: Danie van der Lith

RESIDENTS from Homestead and surrounding areas are fuming after heavy smoke caused by smouldering sludge, which is believed to have caught alight during a veld fire near the Homevale Waste Water Sewage Works, forced some to evacuate their homes.

The fire broke out on Wednesday, sending massive plumes of acrid smoke into the air over Kimberley.

At the time, municipal spokesperson Sello Matsie said the smoke was the result of burning reeds and denied that the sludge had caught alight.

Yesterday morning, however, Matsie admitted that the sludge ponds at the Homevale Treatment Works were burning, adding that the fire department was continuing in its efforts to extinguish the fire.

In a similar incident in June 2016, the sludge continued to burn for several weeks before the municipality managed to bring the incident under control by physically removing the burning sludge.

At the time, residents were up in arms about the rancid pollution and constant smoke, which they claimed affected their health and quality of living, especially for those with pre-existing medical conditions like asthma.

Yesterday residents again indicated that the smoke had filled their homes, making it difficult to breathe, with some stating that they had to sleep elsewhere on Wednesday night.

“It was so bad that we couldn’t stay at home and had to find somewhere else to sleep. I have small children and I cannot take a chance and put them at risk,” a Homestead mother said.

She questioned whether the municipality had put a contingency plan in place after the previous incident 18 months ago.

“That time we had to suffer with the smoke for more than a month before they eventually managed to douse the smouldering sludge. It seems like they have done absolutely nothing about resolving the situation since then to ensure that it didn’t happen again. Does this mean that every few months we will sit with the same heavy smoke filling our homes?” she questioned.

“Surely they must have a contingency plan in place?”

Several residents also took to social media to express their unhappiness about the heavy smoke, with one indicating that she could not sleep due to a headache caused by the smoke.

Another questioned the health implications. “What health precautions can be taken? Methane is toxic and detrimental to the health of those exposed,” one resident stated.

“This is not a matter that can be taken lightly and needs to be remedied post haste using every resource available. Who takes responsibility for illnesses as a direct result of the smoke/methane inhalation?”

Matsie said yesterday that the sludge ponds were still smouldering, although all efforts were being made to flood the ponds with recycled water from the Homevale Waste Water Treatment Plant.

If this fails to extinguish the smouldering sludge under the surface, the smoke could continue for several weeks.

Matsie said the other alternative would be to remove the burning sludge, which was the approach adopted previously, in order to open it up so that it can burn itself out. “The sludge dams are very deep so the sludge keeps burning under the surface.”

Matsie meanwhile said yesterday that the municipality had received several complaints from members of the public regarding the smoke and potential health hazards.

“Unfortunately the situation is worse at night when there is no wind to dissipate the smoke. People are also less active at night so the effects of the smoke, which includes eye irritation, are more severe.”

He called on the public to take the necessary precautions to prevent veld fires.

“At this stage, the Fire Department is still investigating the cause of the fire – whether it was a spontaneous combustion, although that is more likely in a closed area, or as a result of a veld fire.” .

The sludge ponds were formed when sludge from the HWWTW was dumped in the area approximately 10 to 15 years ago. Over the years, the sludge has dried out and hardened to a cement-like consistency, making it a perfect burning fuel.

Wednesday’s veld fire came in the wake of a warning from the Northern Cape Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development of runaway veld fires, caused by arid grass, together with prevailing winds.

More than 60 000 hectares of grazing land, property, wildlife and livestock were destroyed in a devastating fire that ravaged large areas of land in the Boshof district last weekend.

Extremely hot temperatures have been predicted for the city again, rising to 39 degrees Celsius over the weekend.

The SA Weather Service yesterday issued another warning of veld fire conditions over the interior of the Northern Cape, as well as extreme heat over the Namaqua district today. High discomfort levels are also expected over the interior of the Province.