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Small victory in blighted mining landscape

Written by  Sunday, 03 February 2013 06:25
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Mariette Liefferink’s red high-heeled sandals sink into the watery earth. She totters to a mining pit overflowing with copper water that is stained like blood. That this is filled with partially treated acid mine drainage (AMD) is a small victory for the environmental activist.

For several years, the grandmother of two has led concerned activists, scientists, politicians and communities on her toxic tours of the West Rand’s blighted mining landscape. But then, the untreated water was a toxic flood largely ignored by authorities – now it has been reduced to a trickle. It shows her work is paying off.

“The mere acknowledgement by the government of the AMD crisis and the emergency implementation is a victory”, she says. “The spontaneous decant of AMD has stopped. There are more volumes being treated on a sustainable basis. It’s not a complete measure, but at least action has been taken by the government.”

Since 2002, millions of litres of untreated AMD have been decanting from disused mine shafts at this site in Randfontein into receiving waterways every day.
But this has largely been curtailed because of the upgrade of a neutralisation plant now treating more than 30 million litres of AMD a day by neutralising the toxic water with lime to rid it of the heavy metals and acidity that contaminate it. Still, high levels of sulphates remain, rendering the water unfit for human consumption. It’s how the process has been followed that’s a problem for Liefferink, who heads the Federation for a Sustainable Environment.
It is appealing a decision by the Department of Environmental affairs earlier this month that exempted the Department of Water Affairs from conducting an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the immediate and short term interventions for its Witwatersrand AMD mitigation project, pegged at more than R2 billion.

“There’s not been sufficient reasons supplied by the minister of water affairs on why she authorised the exemption. We want to know, what is the risk assessment regarding end water users, the ecology and the impact on the tourism sector.

“The agricultural sector has to carry the costs. There has been no apportionment of liability with the mining houses done”, says Liefferink.

Too many uncertainties remain. “We want surety that the water that flows after neutralisation from here into the Tweelopiespruit is fit for use, but the Department of Water Affairs has not given us water quality data for a year.

About 500 tons of salt will be released very day into the Vaal River system when pumping and treatment of the AMD that is rising in the Central Basin – which runs beneath Joburg – gets under way. This will reduce the capacity of the Vaal to dilute the high salinity

Sulphate levels about 650mg/l may result in non-adaptive diarrhoea in humans and sulphate levels over 250mg/l will lead to the suppression of copper and selenium in cattle, which causes low fertility and poor condition. The World Health Organisation says water with a sulphate concentration of 200mg/l is safe to drink, but the Department of Water Affairs believes 600mg/l is fit for human consumption.

“The problem is that while neutralisation removes some of the metals, the metals that remain are often not within regulatory limit. The high sulphates are of huge concern. There’s been no quantification of the health risks.”
Graham Trusler of Digby Wells, the environmental consultants who were supposed to conduct the EIA for the immediate and short term interventions has found that were the department to authorise the EIA, it would “have possibly found that the short term would have significant impacts on downstream water users due to the high salinity.”

In the Central Mining Basin, where AMD is steadily rising beneath Joburg’s city centre, the environmental critical level is expected to be breached by September. It will follow the Eastern Basin a year later. This means authorities only have months, says Liefferink, to start the process of erecting neutralisation plants to pump and treat AMD elsewhere.

In its appeal, the Federation for a Sustainable Environment will argue that the likelihood of people coming into contact with radioactively polluted sites “has so far been completely ignored” by authorities, while other risks include increased seismicity and the “possible subsidence of tailings structures incorporated into infrastructure such as the M2 highway.”

As the Central Basin floods, residents could also be exposed to the radioactive gas radon through open shafts.

The feasibility study for the long term treatment of AMD will be released next month. Liefferink hopes this will be linked to the short term AMD project, and see desalination of AMD get off the ground.

“There are many alternative technologies that must be assessed and the department is under-capacitated.”

Back on the West Rand, raw AMD still taints the barren landscape. “The problem is it’s still in the soil and there are no plans to rehabilitate it at all in the short and long term”, adds Liefferink. “These degraded areas are secondary sources of AMD.”


Sulphates rocket in aquifer

When Garfield Krige tested his groundwater in 2002 to ensure it was safe to drink, the concentration of sulphates was well within regulatory limits. A decade later, it has exploded.
For this “almost exponential” increase in the pollution of the Zwartkrans aquifer, the hydrologist blames the decant of acid mine drainage (AMD) – the toxic and radioactive water that was allowed to seep from old mineshafts in the Western Basin, poisoning the Krugersdorp Game Reserve and pouring into waterways flowing to the Cradle of Humankind.
Krige, who lives on a plot in the Cradle, reveals how his water tests in 2002 showed sulphate levels of 172mg/l. Last year, the concentration had risen to 442mg/l “proof that a sudden and exponential increase in the sulphate concentration is occurring within this aquifer.”
And even as authorities have essentially stopped the decant on the Western basin, the sulphate levels have remained high because the acidic water is only partially treated, leaving a high level of sulphates in the water.
“The rise in sulphates means that the water will not be suitable for human for human consumption by the end of the year”, he warns. “This aquifer is presently the sole drinking water source form ost of the residents in this area and also in areas beyond the local are where the samples are collected.”
The Department of Water Affairs said “the matter is presently under scrutiny of our geo-hydrologists.”

What quantity of sulphates are entering our river systems from neutralised acid mine drainage (AMD)?

  • The government’s immediate and short term solution to AMD is through neutralisation, where the water is treated with lime to reduce its acidity and remove toxic heavy metals. The process, however, does not remove sulphates. AMD typically contains 4 500mg/l of sulphates – the neutralised water contains 2 500 mg/l sulphates
  • On the Western Basin, 70 tons of salt are being released every day into the Tweelopespruit, which is part of the Crocodile West/Marico Water Catchment Area, from the millions of litres of neutralised AMD entering the river system.




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The FSE, in association with Gold Fields’ South Deep Mine, donated 40 white Karee Trees (Searsia penduline) during Arbor Week to the mining affected community of Simunye in the West Rand and participated in the tree planting ceremony with the community of Simunye, the local Municipality and officials from South Deep Mine.  The FSE also delivered a presentation during the ceremony.

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WITS Economics & Finance Courses: Mining for Development: The Taxation Linkage

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The Federation for a Sustainable Environment’s ongoing role in addressing the sewage pollution in the Vaal River

‘People the same as pigs’ in the VaalBy Sheree Bega | 16 Oct 2020 Foul: Pigs root in sludge in Emfuleni municipality. (Photos: Delwyn Verasamy/M&G) Clutching her one-year-old son, Monica Ndakisa jumps onto a brick to avoid the sewage that runs like a dark stain across the passage in her home.  “We’ve lived like this for years,” she says pointing to one of the culprits: her blocked toilet, which causes sewage to pool into nearly every room of her home in Sebokeng hostel in the Vaal. “The smell is too terrible.” It’s worse outside. Her small garden is submerged in a sickly, grey sewage swamp. To stop the human waste from seeping inside, Ndakisa has built a concrete barrier at her front door. But it’s futile. “My five-year-old son was in the hospital for two weeks with severe eczema and they told me it’s because of all this sewage. It makes us cough all the time. It’s so depressing to live like this.” Samson Mokoena, of the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (Veja), shakes his head. “It’s chaos. You can’t allow people to live in such conditions. The government is playing with our people.” Ndakisa’s neighbour, Maphelo Apleni, has used pipes to divert the stream of sewage from his garden. “It never stops,” he says grimly. “We have a municipality [Emfuleni] that doesn’t care about us.” Mziwekaya Mokwana points at a sewage-filled furrow clogged with litter where pigs are feeding. “This is no better life,” he says. “People are the same as pigs here.” Sewage in Vaal River system  Last month, the human settlements, water and sanitation department said it would take at least another three years to minimise and eventually stop the sewage flowing into the Vaal River system. In a recent presentation, it states how “design treatment capacity is at its limit, housing development investments are delayed and there are negative environmental and health impacts”. Ageing infrastructure is to blame for sewage spillages, coupled “with a lack of operation and maintenance investment” as well as theft and vandalism.  It will cost about R2.2-billion “to have a sustainable impact on the Vaal River catchment within Emfuleni local municipality”. The department’s plan aims to safeguard infrastructure; repair the bulk network to eliminate spillages, key and critical pump stations and rising mains; refurbish wastewater treatment works “in an attempt to comply with discharge licence conditions”; and achieve operation and maintenance requirements. But Maureen Stewart, the vice-chairperson of Save the Vaal (Save) is sceptical. She says there is no political will to tackle the crisis. “These problems go back over 12 yearsand reached crisis proportions when the system collapsed in 2018. The result is some 200 million litres of raw or partially treated sewage entering the Vaal River and its tributaries daily.” Stewart warns that it’s an ecological disaster that also affects agriculture and has serious health implications for people living above and below the Vaal Barrage Reservoir, which is 64km long and used to supply Johannesburg with water but is now too polluted to do so.   She says the Emfuleni municipality has been under Gauteng’s administration since mid-2018 and, despite promises, the status quo remains — unbridled sewage pollution of the Vaal River and Emfuleni.  “The Ekurhuleni Water Care Company (Erwat) was appointed to take over in 2019 and were given funding and spent R179-million. Their contribution was to unblock pipes and remove 50 tons of rubbish from the system. This opened the pipes but, as the pump stations and the three wastewater treatment plants remain dysfunctional, there has been no improvement. Raw sewage continues to flow into the Vaal River and into the streets of Emfuleni.”  Monica Ndakisa sweeps overspill from her toilet. There was a “glimmer of hope” when Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, visited the Vaal in January this year, assuring Save that action will be taken and that funds are earmarked in the 2020-2021 budget.  “It seems her enthusiasm has not filtered down to her department,” says Stewart. “After Erwat’s contract was not renewed, the department stated they would undertake the repairs by appointing their own contractors. Tender documents have been languishing on someone’s desk at the department since July.” Sputnik Ratau, spokesperson for the department, says the government has committed resources towards solving the sewage problem in the Vaal.  “Government sent state institutions to assist Emfuleni local municipality (ELM) in this regard; these include SANDF and Erwat. Recently, the department finalised the scope of all that needs to be done to solve the sewage problem. There are 26 work packages that will be advertised in the coming weeks for competent contractors to take part in solving the sewage challenge in the Vaal.”  The department, says Ratau, aims to have a “busy festive season” working with the appointed contractors. “In the 2020/21 financial year, the department has committed R911-million towards solving this challenge. The total investment by the department in 2020/21 financial year is R1.2-billion in the Vaal; this includes the building of additional wastewater treatment capacity and associated pump stations.” Maphelo Apleni installs pipes to drain sewage out of his garden. Before the end of the financial year Module 6 in Sebokeng water care works will be launched, “subject to no community unrest disrupting construction”. The department, Ratau says, has to take all necessary precautions to ensure that section 217 of the constitution is followed as far as procurement is concerned.  “Thus the departmental checks and balances had to be followed to the letter to ensure compliance with procurement processes. This unfortunately caused delays but was necessary.” Within the next month the department aims to advertise for all the contractors “that can assist in this challenge”. Ratau says commitment dates, including start and completion dates, “will be sent not only to Save but all interested stakeholders once the contractors are appointed. The department cannot preempt this before the appointments are made.” He says that R7-billion is required to “solve the pollution challenge in ELM. This needs to be coupled with operations and maintenance, which is a function of ELM at local government level”. Save is once again taking the government to court to enforce legislation to ensure infrastructure is repaired within phased completion dates and that sufficient funds are made available for ongoing maintenance and operation of the system by the municipality, supervised by the high court.   Veja’s Mokoena is glad the department is taking over the Vaal clean-up. “This situation was supposed to be fixed a long time ago. So much money has been squandered at the municipal level.” Rand Water’s delay Eight months. That’s how long it took Rand Water to release public water quality records for the Vaal Barrage system to a team of aquatic specialists investigating the ecological health of the river system.  In January, Aquatic Ecosystems of Africa submitted a Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia) application to Rand Water for access to its water quality analysis data for the Vaal Barrage and downstream since 2015.  Nothing happened, it says, until Tshepang Sebulela, the Paia compliance officer from the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) intervened late last month.  New pipelines are being installed in the Vaal. In an email to Rand Water, Sebulela noted how the multiple requests for records by Aquatic Ecosystems and the Federation for a Sustainable Environment have allegedly been ignored, which in terms of Paia are deemed refusals.  “The SAHRC is greatly concerned by a large number of public institutions who provide such important services to the public who refuse to meet their basic legislative obligations,” he wrote. The records landed in the firm’s inbox on 2 October.  Aquatic Systems’ Simone Liefferink says sourcing surface water system data is becoming increasingly difficult. “It’s disturbing the data is not adequately managed, readily accessible to the public and private sectors who pay tax and other water charges for effective catchment management to be implemented.”  Rand Water did not explain the reason behind the delay.  That the information was provided in a PDF format of almost 2 000 pages “frustrates and delays” its interpretation, says Liefferink.  She and her partner, Russell Tate, began their investigation after a major fish kill in the Vaal River in mid-2018. That September they testified at the HRC’s inquiry into the contamination of the Vaal River that high levels of ammonia from the wastewater treatment works was wiping out life in the river system. A snap-shot analysis of the data provided by Rand Water shows high levels of E coli, ammonium and ammonia — key indicators of sewage pollution. Average E coli counts soared from 12 705 colony-forming units per 100ml in 2010 to more than 107 000 in 2018 and 66 923 in 2020.  “The contributing factor is clear — dysfunctional sewage treatment conveyances and treatment plants. More disturbing is the long-standing deterioration of the system that ever increases the loss of biodiversity and other essential ecological functions and human services. Yet this matter is still not treated with extreme urgency,” says Liefferink. HRC’s long-awaited report It’s taken nearly two years for the Human Rights Commission to release its report into the Emfuleni sewage crisis. “Their report has not yet been taken to parliament, nor has it been published. Why?” asks Save’s Stewart. Buang Jones, the Gauteng manager of the HRC, says the provincial report has been finalised.  “It’s with the commissioners now for final adoption and approval. Once it’s been approved, it will be shared with implicated parties and they’ll have 10 days to comment. This is a countrywide issue and the report seeks to address broader challenges when it comes to river pollution and wastewater management,” he says.  Read the original article here.


The Intervention document is attached for download....

Development of the National Eutrophication Strategy and Supporting Documents

Attached documents:1. DWS Eutrophication SA & GA PSC 1 BID2. PSC 1 Meeting A...