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Gold rush leaves toxic hangover

Written by  Sheree Bega Monday, 31 October 2016 17:02
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The 'West and Central Rand' have historically contained some the biggest gold deposits on Earth. But extracting this resource has left a dangerous environmental legacy, says the Harvard Law School in a new and alarming report. Sheree Bega examines some of its findings

An eerie silence hangs over the dead waters of Robinson Lake and the crumbling ruins of the abandoned buildings that encircle the wasteland.

A new study has found that gold mining has contaminated water, the soil and the air with elevated levels of heavy metals, with dire consequences for communities.

Mariette Liefferink, of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, often brings scientists, academics and government employees to the Randfontein site, a stop in her weekly “toxic tour”.

This is because it aptly illustrates the devastation after mining, she says. “This is the dance hall where Lady Robinson practised,” says Liefferink, pointing to a dilapidated building. Her eyes move to a few abandoned mansions set apart beyond the lake. “The golf course bought Robinson Lake to develop a luxury golf estate. But look at it now: it’s a declared radioactive dam. It’s unfenced.”

In 2003, uranium levels at Robinson Lake, where a local mine first pumped decanting acid mine drainage (AMD) into, were 40 000 times above uranium levels in natural water. Robinson Lake’s exceedingly high uranium levels are cited in a new 6-year study, The Cost of Gold: Environmental, Health and Human Rights Consequences of Gold Mining in South Africa’s West and Central Rand, by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.

The report finds that gold mining on the West and Central Rand - researchers interviewed residents from 20 communities spanning Riverlea, Meadowlands and Bekkersdal - has contaminated water, soil and air with elevated levels of heavy metals, including uranium.

“Local people have been exposed to AMD when using local waterways for agriculture, laundry or recreation. Residents have also inhaled dust from toxic and radioactive mine waste dumps, or tailings dams.”

Elevated concentrations of heavy metals and radiation can cause immediate and long-term medical problems ranging from asthma and skin rashes, cancer and organ damage, notes the report. Yet the government has not fully met its obligations to ensure that communities in these areas can exercise their rights to health, a healthy environment, water and housing.

While the authors - the research was led by Bonnie Docherty, a senior clinical instructor at the clinic - recognise that the involvement of the mining industry and community are vital to deal with the crisis of mining waste, the report’s criticism - and recommendations - largely focus on the actions of the government, “which has a legal obligation to guarantee human rights”.

“South Africa should adopt a co-ordinated, comprehensive programme that both mitigates the effects of mining and helps the country meet its responsibilities under domestic, international and regional human rights law,” says Docherty.

Last week, a submission by a group of civil society organisations, including the Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, to the UN Human Rights Council, in preparation for its Universal Periodic Review - South Africa, stated how the environmental and human damage done by mining violates the human rights of many communities across the country.

“These violations disproportionately impact poorest and most vulnerable communities, because they are frequently located close to mines and coal-fired power plants. Despite the environmental and social harms of mining, the government is not enforcing the relevant environmental standards.”

The government has been aware of the dangers of AMD since 1937, yet its slow response has “delayed efforts to deal with the problem and allowed harm to continue”, says the Harvard report.

AMD and its potential impacts have not only put communities at risk but also raised significant human rights concerns under national and international law.

“Community members have indirectly ingested AMD, especially by eating vegetables ingested with the polluted water, meat from cattle that have drunk from local waterways, and fish from contaminated bodies of water.

“Residents told us they suffered from skin rashes after exposure, and studies done in other parts of the world have documented long-term health impacts such as cancer and organ damage,” says Docherty.

Tailings dams, or mine dumps, have exposed the region’s residents to elevated levels of heavy metals through several pathways. “This has included inhalation and ingestion of dust, cultivation, and the consumption of contaminated food, direct contact with soil and use of traditional medicines.”

Children who have lived near, and frequently played on, tailings dams, face especially serious health risks. “Pre- and post-natal exposure to contaminants such as arsenic, cadmium and lead (can cause) neurological damage, skin lesions and cancer.”

Residents of at least 10 communities believe mine dust has caused breathing difficulties. But the government has “underused” dust control measures that could reduce the adverse effects of tailings.

Despite the protections enshrined in the constitution, “mining waste, whether in the form of dust or soil, has created conditions that may be unacceptably harmful to well-being. The dust blanketing communities has interfered with residents’ welfare and presented a health hazards that seems to have already caused health problems.”


“While re-mining has had the potential to reduce some risks posed by tailings, it has exacerbated the health threat.”


And while contamination levels have been well-documented, the report notes that there has been a shortage of epidemiological studies probing the effects of mining contamination in the region. “The lack of such information has undermined residents’ abilities to protect themselves or advocate on their own behalf.”


Last year, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer with the mine water research group of North West University started a study of uranium exposure from mines in and around Joburg.


For this, Liefferink collected 1 500 hair samples from 10 at-risk communities and control samples. Testing is under way, says Professor Frank Winde, a uranium expert from the university. “We’re in the process of analysing all samples and comparing results from different labs. This is taking a while as samples needs to be shipped internationally and methods for homogenising hair had to be found and refined.”


The health department is also supporting epidemiological studies of communities in the region.


“The remains of abandoned legacy mines, as well as new operations, have contaminated the region. Because the area has been densely populated, disadvantaged communities have borne the greatest burden,” says Docherty.


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Lauded for research on SA acid mine drainage

The launch of Acid mine drainage in South Africa: Development actors, policy impacts and broader implications, by Suvania Naidoo, took place on 10 February 2017. The book has proven to be a timely publication because of the incipient water crisis in South Africa. The event was hosted by Unisa’s Department of Development Studies in the College of Human Sciences. The guests were welcomed by the chair of the department, Prof Gretchen du Plessis, who expressed that “development studies is an ever-changing discipline and is a space where different issues converge”. She further stated that the book fills a void in our knowledge about acid mine drainage (AMD) and that the publication is “an example of hard work which results in big achievements”.   This publication is the culmination of the findings of the research conducted for Naidoo’s master’s dissertation. The book focuses on assessing the responses of the various development actors involved in addressing the issues of AMD, and its socio-economic and developmental implications. Prof Dirk Kotzé, from the Department of Political Sciences at Unisa and programme director for the event, said that AMD research is generally analysed from highly technical, engineering, and natural science perspectives. He also said that the purpose of the publication was to identify and explain the different conceptual understandings of AMD and its implications. Kotzé acclaimed the publication as being one of the few cases where a social science approach successfully ventures into the domain of the natural sciences.   Naidoo uses sustainable development and, specifically, environmental sustainability as the departure for this research, which is directly linked to water and food security. She said the book concentrates on AMD as “a phenomenon in water management in South Africa and its potential impact on sustainable development, as well as mining and the quality of water in South Africa and the impacts of AMD”.   She emphasised that one of the most important contributions of her research is conceptual in nature and said “the manner in which AMD is defined determines how it is assessed as a water management, environmental, and social problem. It also means that the response to AMD is determined by how it is defined by government”. Naidoo highlighted that, while the South African government has made strong and valuable attempts to address the issues surrounding AMD, the conclusions of her research showed that there was no clear indication in policy as to what the socio-economic impacts caused by AMD are, and how they should be responded to.   Keynote speaker, Mariette Liefferink, CEO of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, and a leading activist in this field, provided a detailed account of the historic and contemporary context of AMD. She alerted the audience to a significant fact that AMD dates as far back as 1903. She used a more current example to illustrate the impact of AMD on South Africa’s water systems by explaining how the problem of AMD in the West Rand Basin, Gauteng, was left untreated for almost 10 years. She said the immediate short-term treatment of AMD only commenced in 2012 and said that a feasibility study for the long-term treatment of this phenomenon was conducted in 2013 at a cost of R25m. Liefferink said that the long-term treatment plan for AMD was launched on 18 May 2016 but would only be implemented by 2020. She warned that this might have a significant impact on water security. She stressed that academics who employ their research for the benefit of society should be applauded and endorsed Naidoo’s publication as having a definite economic and social value impact.   Zachary Romano, editor at Springer, New York, via a pre-recorded video, said: “Suvania’s research was a perfect candidate for our SpringerBriefs edition, in Earth Sciences, Geography and Environment at Springer Nature. This series is targeted at publishing interdisciplinary case-studies that speaks to larger issues, particularly from young researchers with promising careers. As South Africa’s water systems are under much stress from climate change and pollution already, this is a timely document and we are confident that many academics and professionals will find it to be a great resource”. He also said that the book proposal was reviewed by several leaders in the field, all of whom were impressed by the final product. He further mentioned that the publisher is looking forward to future collaborative work with Naidoo.   The event was extremely well-attended by key stakeholders and experts in this field.

Truth of the dust that brings death

  A new hard-hitting report from Harvard Law School details how South Africa has failed to meet its human rights obligations concerning gold mining in and around Joburg. Bonnie Docherty, who led the research, spoke to Sheree Bega

Harvard Report: The Cost of Gold

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