Beyond the sea defence and sand dunes, a gently sloping, 4 kilometre long sandy beach extends to the sea. The beach faces south west into Swansea Bay and is located between two large rivers, the River Neath to the north west and River Afan to the south east. Directly behind the beach, is the industrial town of Port Talbot. The water quality sample point is located opposite the roundabout along the sea front, off the slip near the coastguard station.
Natural Resources Wales works with Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council, Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water and privately permitted discharge consent holders to establish and resolve sources of pollution affecting water quality at Aberafan bathing water.
Inspections are carried out by Natural Resources Wales in partnership with the local authority and the water company. These are carried out pre-season (before the 15th of May) and mid season if required (during the bathing water season).
There are no direct discharges from the sewage network onto the bathing beach. However, there are several sewage pumping stations with emergency and storm overflows located within in the tidal zones of the Rivers Afan and Neath. These protect domestic properties in Neath and Port Talbot from being flooded by sewage and storm water during heavy rainfall. There could be an adverse impact on bathing water quality following periods of heavy rainfall, when these discharges operate.
A project known as Event Duration Monitoring (EDM) is underway to install telemetry on Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) within 2km of a bathing water by 2020 so that Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water (DCWW) know when the CSOs are operating and can work to reduce spills. Eighteen CSOs near Aberafan are included in the project.
Immediately behind Aberafan bathing water are Sandfields and Aberafan, urban areas of Port Talbot. These areas are served by a combined surface water and sewer system, but this does not discharge onto the beach.
Wrongly connected waste water pipes have been identified in other urban areas further upstream in the bathing water catchment. These can have a detrimental impact on the bathing water quality. Natural Resources Wales is working with Neath Port Talbot council and Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water to identify and resolve these sources of pollution.
Modern sewerage systems have two separate systems, one takes foul sewage to sewage treatment, the other takes rainwater runoff through surface water drains to rivers, lakes and the sea. Misconnections occur when waste water pipes are plumbed into surface water drains instead of the foul water sewerage system. This can give rise to pollution when the waste water is discharged directly to the environment through the surface water drain. For example, a washing machine or toilet may be incorrectly plumbed so that it discharges to the surface drain rather than the foul sewage drain.
Phytoplankton (microscopic algae) naturally increase in number at certain times of the year. This process is known as a phytoplankton bloom. These algal blooms can occur at any beach during the bathing season and are usually noticeable by a surface scum. This beach has a history of such blooms.
Streams and rivers are typically affected by sewage, agricultural and industrial run off from further up the catchment. During and after periods of heavy rainfall, runoff from all these areas will be greatly increased. As a result, reduced water quality may persist in watercourses for some time after rainfall has occurred. The water quality at Aberafan is affected by the freshwater of two large rivers, the Afan and Neath. In recent years water quality failures have been regularly recorded after periods of prolonged or heavy rainfall.
Two large wastewater treatment works discharge their final effluent into Swansea Bay, via long sea outfalls. One of these works has ultra-violet treatment, which is designed to reduce the levels of bacteria in the final effluent, which will help to improve bathing water quality. These works also have emergency and storm outlets which, when operating will discharge screened effluent into Swansea Bay. There are also seven smaller sewage treatment works located along the length of the River Neath which also have storm and/or emergency overflows.
Natural Resources Wales samplers make visual observations of the beach at every visit. This includes assessments of sewage debris, animal faeces, litter and oil or tar. At Aberafan, data are available for the four year assessment period from 2012-2015. Sewage debris was observed in trace amounts on over thirty per cent of occasions. Animal faeces was not noted at this site. Trace amounts of litter were observed at the bathing water the majority of the time and in greater amounts on less than ten per cent of additional occasions. Oil and tarry residues were not noted at this site.
Poorly maintained private sewage treatment facilities could be a source of pollution, therefore the registration of all qualifying private sewage systems in Wales was required by 30 June 2012. The primary aim of this exercise is to provide increased protection for the environment and sensitive features such as bathing water beaches. Where discharges from properties are identified in the catchment that are not on mains sewerage, Natural Resources Wales will endeavour to ensure registration has been made, unless already a permitted discharge.
The natural drainage (hydrological) catchment surrounding the bathing water is highly diverse. The towns of Neath and Port Talbot are located in the lower catchment of the bathing water, with several smaller urban areas located along the length of the two rivers. These urban areas comprise a mixture of residential and light industrial land use. There is also substantial heavy industry to the south east of the beach incorporating a large deepwater dock with associated shipping traffic. Higher up in the catchment, there are large areas of forestry land, active and moth-balled mines and upland hill farming (predominantly sheep).
Seaweed (macroalgae) and phytoplankton (microscopic algae) are a natural part of the marine and freshwater environment. Below we note whether these have been recorded in quantities sufficient to be a nuisance.
The majority of sewers in Wales are “combined sewers” and carry both sewage and surface water from roofs and drains. A storm overflow operates during heavy rainfall when the sewerage system becomes overwhelmed by the amount of surface water. The overflow prevents sewage from backing up pipes and flooding properties and gardens. An emergency overflow will only operate infrequently, for example due to pump failure or blockage in the sewerage system.
Heavy rain falling on pavements and roads often flows into surface water drains or highway drains, ending up in local rivers and, ultimately, the sea. The quality of bathing water may be adversely affected as a result of such events.
It is Natural Resources Wales' role to drive improvement of water quality at bathing waters that are at risk of failing European standards. It is natural for water to run off the land to the sea. Water quality at a bathing water is dependent upon the type and area of land (the catchment) draining to the water and the activities undertaken in that catchment. The following sections serve to highlight potential sources of pollution, conditions under which they may arise and measures being put in place to improve water quality.