The environmental association Quercus has demanded that Águas do Algarve builds a new Wastewater Treatment Plant between Faro and Olhão to reduce the pollution currently being released into the waters of the Ria Formosa natural area between Olhão and Faro.
The water company says the new treatment plant has already been started, but with an expected operational date of 'late 2017' - a possible 4 year wait before the Ria Formosa waters again can produce the top quality shellfish for which the area is renowned.
Águas do Algarve have at last admitted, in an interview with Sul Informaçao, that discharges from the old treatment plants have 'occasional peaks where there is non-compliance,' but refuses to take sole responsibility for the poor water quality in the Ria.
Quercus is late to the debate which to date has involved the EC, government ministers, national political parties in power and in opposition, environmental groups, local interest groups, fishermen associations, tourism bodies, MEPs, MPs, the local mayor and local opposition, but today stressed its "indignation at a situation that affects the lagoon ecosystem, the economic activities of the region and the population,” and reminded the water company of the ban on the harvesting of shellfish from the nurseries in the Natural Park of Ria Formosa that has been caused by the foul water eminating from its old sewage plants.
"This ban is caused by pollution from the Wastewater Treatment Plants which have not been complying with the legal levels of faecal coliform* in the water which have exceeded the acceptable limits by 100%.”
Águas do Algarve says the operational sewage plants need sunlight to work properly, so in the winter problems occur but the company refuses to shoulder the blame, adding that “if the water in the Ria is not good, this can not be solely because of the sewage plants.”
Quercus argues that the shellfish nurserymen and those affected by the on/off ban on harvesting bivalves must be compensated by the Faro and Olhão councils whose debts to Águas do Algarve have “caused this situation."
Águas do Algarve’s Teresa Fernandes said that the investment policy of the company is not conditional on municipal customers paying off their arrears but added that the overall debt owed by the Algarve’s municipalities reached €84 million in 2013.
Águas de Portugal, SGPS, S.A owns 54.44% of the shares in Águas do Algarve, the balance being help by the Algarve's municipalities themselves, many of which are in serious debt to the company.
This figure has dropped to €56 million after several cameras have settled part of their debts, including Olhão, which despite having been well behind in payments, has begun to clear the sums owed.
Águas do Algarve is making “all efforts” to progress the new treatment plant in order to solve the sewage problem, according to its spokesperson, and the required Environmental Impact Study has been submitted and accepted after some revision. The company now expects to be able to launch a public tender for the work early in 2015, the fastest they say they can work within the legal parameters set.
The mayor of Olhão announced that bids would be in by the end of 2014 but it seems this was hasty, or wishful, or politically expedient as the sewage row escalated in his backyard.
Teresa Fernades is adamant that a long delay is normal as Águas do Algarve have to handle all the necessary paperwork in order to launch the tender in early 2015 and are unable to award the work earlier as this investment requires a lot of time-consuming procedures, “we are talking about a €14 million project."
Hence, the long awaited and urgently required work to stop sewage being pumped into the Ria Formosa is likely to start at best in early 2016 as “a sewage plant of this size takes two years to build," with the work lasting at least until the end of 2017.
This will cause dismay among environmentalists and those dependent on the Ria Formosa for their livelihood as Águas do Algarve, the company that has caused a major part of the problem, can not solve it for nearly another 4 years.
* Faecal coliform and the environment
In general, increased levels of faecal coliforms provide a warning of failure in water treatment, a break in the integrity of the distribution system, possible contamination with pathogens. When levels are high there may be an elevated risk of waterborne gastroenteritis.
Untreated organic matter that contains faecal coliform can be harmful to the environment. Aerobic decomposition of this material can reduce dissolved oxygen levels if discharged into rivers or waterways. This may reduce the oxygen level enough to kill fish and other aquatic life.
Reduction of faecal coliform in wastewater may require the use of chlorine and other disinfectant chemicals. Such materials may kill the faecal coliform and disease bacteria but they also kill bacteria essential to the proper balance of the aquatic environment, endangering the survival of species dependent on those bacteria. So higher levels of faecal coliform require higher levels of chlorine, threatening those aquatic organisms.