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14 July 2011

Boreholes in Karoo polluted by petrol


Melanie Gosling

BEAUFORT West’s underground water supply is polluted – with petrol. The fuel got into the water from leaking tanks at the town’s petrol stations and more than 30 boreholes have been contaminated.

The oil companies – BP, Total, Chevron and Shell – have appointed consultants through the SA Petroleum Industry Association (Sapia) to try to sort out the problem.

They have told residents with contaminated boreholes not to use the water, and have installed small filtration plants at some houses to remove the petrol.

Although it seems the leakages happened years ago and there appear to be no new leaks, the petrol shows no signs of going away. It lurks in cracks underground and is coming up in boreholes all over town.

And the pollution effects may also be in the air.

In the semi-desert Karoo town, where many residents rely on borehole water for their gardens – and some for household use, including drinking water – the situation is serious.

Recently, the oil companies appointed consultants Geo Pollution Technologies to test for carcinogenic vapours in the home of resident Schalk Basson. They flew in the testing equipment from the US.

Basson, a retired magistrate, was diagnosed in March with brain and lung cancer. He and his wife, Suzette, first found petrol in their borehole water in January 2008.

Standing in their garden, most of it killed off by the polluted borehole water, Basson said he had been promised the vapour test results two weeks ago. He still has not got them.

“After I told (the consultants) I had brain cancer, they had an emergency meeting and said they were coming to do vapour intrusion tests in our house. I asked for what purpose. They said to see if there are carcinogens present.

“Chevron gave instructions to see that tests were carried out. We didn’t ask for them. The tests were sent to the US and the results are with the people from Chevron. We don’t know what they are.”

A woman from Total had visited him and offered to repaint the house to get rid of the petrol stains left by garden sprinklers, Basson said.

Does he think the contaminated borehole water gave him cancer? He shrugs: “It’s 50-50.”

Suzette Basson adds: “Who can tell?”

Next to her is the thick stump of an apricot tree. It bore fruit for decades, but the borehole water killed it.

The couple have also lost two fig trees, shrubs and lawn. The walls of their outhouses are stained black from the contaminated water in sprinklers.

“We bought a portapool for the grandchildren, but we can’t use it because of the water,” Suzette Basson said.

Because Beaufort West is arid, using municipal water for gardens or pools is prohibited. In December, when the dam ran dry, people from all over the country sent bottled water to the town to help it through one of its worst droughts.

Some years ago the borehole at the old pastorie apparently pumped up so much petrol in the water that it was used to fuel a bakkie.

Local resident and retired petrol station manager Charlie Brittnell said yesterday: “Listen, I saw it with my own eyes. The people tapped their borehole water out into a small dam in the garden, and there was a thick layer of petrol floating on top. They skepped it out, put it in a drum, drained it and then put it in the bakkie. And the bakkie drove, no problem.”

Brittnell believes this is a foretaste of what could go wrong if companies are allowed to frack for gas in the Karoo. If the toxic chemicals used get into the underground water, like the petrol, it will never go away. Most Karoo towns get their water from underground sources.

“The oil companies have been spending millions, but they’ve got no solution. Once the petrol gets into the water through the veins in the rock, it goes where it wants to go and you’ll never get rid of it,” Brittnell said.

Anton Moldan, environmental adviser to Sapia, who is helping the oil companies sort out the problem, said tests showed that the most likely sources of the contamination were from Chevron, BP and Total’s filling stations, and possibly Shell at the co-op.

Moldan said Sapia had appointed Geo Pollution Technologies to test and monitor and to clean up boreholes filtration plants.

The first evidence of contamination came to light in the early 1990s. Tests showed there was no more leaking from petrol stations, Moldan said. Some boreholes contained dissolved components of petrol, while four or five had pure petrol floating on the surface.

“It is a complex geological structure. The aquifer is fractured rock. To get contamination out is not easy.”

Basson has stage four cancer, with “zero prognosis”.

Standing on the stoep, wearing a knitted cap and leaning on his walking stick, he said: “We had the sweetest spring water. In the previous drought our neighbours would come with kannetjies to collect it.”

Basson worries about what he will leave his wife to deal with.

He has launched legal action against the oil companies to restore his house, garden and borehole water to what they were.

“Their head offices overseas have to okay it. But they have gurus who specialise in restitution claims, so know all the loopholes. It makes it very difficult for us.”

- Cape Times