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Watered-down solutions

Written by  Charlotte Mathews - Financial Mail Saturday, 30 March 2013 19:54
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If government sticks to its guns on the “user-pays” principle for funding the costs of cleaning water polluted by historical mining activities, it will never find a long-term solution.

“User-pays” has been the official line for the past two years but the cheap, quick-fix solution to address acid mine drainage (AMD) will soon present other environmental problems.
The Trans Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA) has been allocated a government grant of about R450m to implement a short-term solution in the Wits Basin to neutralise high acidity and remove heavy metals from the water. The partially treated water, which still has very high levels of sulphates, is pumped into the Vaal River system and diluted with surplus water from the Lesotho Highlands scheme.
AMD affects three water basins around Johannesburg. On the western basin, the pumping station at the old Rand Uranium treatment works is treating about 25 Ml-30 Ml of water daily and will be upgraded to 40 Ml/day by May next year.
At the central basin, a pump station is being constructed on the ERPM property near Germiston and will be commissioned by October. That is when AMD there is expected to reach environmentally critical levels, so deadlines are tight. Work on the eastern basin plant will begin later this year.
Water affairs minister Edna Molewa told parliament in August the estimated cost of implementing a comprehensive, long-term solution was R2,2bn, in June 2012 terms. But department of water affairs spokesman Sputnik Ratau says because a feasibility study is under way into technology and funding, to be completed by the end of this year or early
46 next year, there is no confirmed cost estimate yet. The full solution must address AMD not only around Johannesburg but also in other historical mining areas, like Witbank’s coalfields, he says.
Foundation for a Sustainable Environment’s Mariette Liefferink, who has spent 10 years arousing public and government awareness of the issue, says a comprehensive solution must include water desalination.
“We are extremely heartened by the fact that this problem, which was ignored for many years, is now receiving attention,” she says. “But the short-term solution is cosmetic. We fear it will become the long-term solution because of the lack of funds.”
She says current plans are to pump 60 Ml/day of partly treated water, containing about 2 500 mg/ l of sulphates, into the Vaal River system from September, rising to 80 Ml by 2014. At 60 Ml/day and 2 500 mg/ l of sulphates, about 500 t of salt will be released into the system, which will have lost its capacity to dilute it by 2014/2015.
Late last month the foundation filed notice of appeal against Molewa’s decision to exempt TCTA from an environmental impact assessment.
Ratau says the short-term solution will not become the long-term solution, but the two are interlinked. There are many technologies available for desalination.
Key to any solution is public-private partnerships, he says. Water affairs already works with mining companies like Central Rand Gold and DRDGold, which have allowed TCTA access to their properties to set up treatment plants. The department holds regular interactions with the Chamber of Mines and within various forums.
Chamber of Mines environmental adviser Stephinah Mudau says the chamber and the department have not discussed the question of funding AMD solutions.
Ratau says it has not been decided yet how long-term treatment will be funded and rejects a recent press report that the department is trying to trace the owners of mines responsible for AMD to take legal action against them.
While pursuing the “polluter-pays” principle may be fair in theory, it would be almost impossible to identify responsible companies or extract money from them, because of the evolution of the industry.
Levying a charge on the whole mining industry would also be difficult, since the industry is already reeling under a raft of heavy costs, from electricity to labour and social obligations, and there’s a tipping point for smaller companies.
The third option would be to make all water users around mining areas pay a higher tariff, which could be justified on the grounds that, historically, mining taxes paid for the infrastructure that citizens in those areas enjoy today.