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Could this be key to solving SA’s acid mine drainage problem?

Written by  Sungula Nkabinde - MineWeb Wednesday, 06 July 2016 21:27
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  A new Finnish technology could revolutionise treatment of acid mine water and industrial waste. 


JOHANNESBURG – Finnish company Global EcoProcess Services (ESPE) has developed and patented a process that it claims will revolutionise the treatment of acid mine drainage (AMD) and industrial waste. AMD is highly acidic water, usually containing high concentrations of metals, sulphides, and salts as a consequence of mining activity.

By adding boric acid to the water treatment process, they discovered a way of separating toxic metals through a precipitation process, producing cleaner water and insoluble metals (or ‘precipitate’) that can be used as raw materials for other purposes.

On Tuesday, representatives from the company gave a presentation to government officials, academics and interested businessmen, on how the technology works and, claiming their method is cheaper, more efficient and simpler than any other water treatment process, saying it required minimal capital outlay and could be integrated into existing waste treatment solutions.

“We have been working on this innovation since 2012,” said CEO Lasse Musakke, stating that current methods cannot extract several metals at the same time, and that the precipitates extracted are soluble, meaning they would still be regarded as hazardous waste. With the EPSE process, many metals are separated in one step and the precipitate can be stored in any landfill, without the high storage costs and environmental risks that come with hazardous waste. 

“Precipitate produced with current technologies is still hazardous, and the end storage costs are €500 to €1000 (R8 171 to R16 343) per tonne, whereas the end storage costs for the environmentally harmless EPSE precipitate are €50 to €80 (R817 to R1 307) per tonne,” Felix Fondem, EPSE director of international operations.

“All of the elements that we are applying in this technology are existing,” said EPSE partner Vesa Kainulainen, “But our innovation is how to apply that in the process. That was unknown, especially with regard to what boric acid can do in a multi-metal solution.”

Still not safe for drinking

The water that is cleaned through this process, however, is not safe drinking water. Although it removes almost all metal, it still contains around 700mg-1400mg of sulphate per litre. In South Africa the maximum limit is 400mg per litre.

Said Kainulainen: “Our method is ideal for pre-treating the multi-metal solution, with some amount of sulphate remaining and then to use another process, which could be biological treatment of reverse osmosis to purify it. Personally I would prefer reverse osmosis because then you have a product that can be sold at the end of that process, which is sulphuric acid. Through reverse osmosis you only have potable water at the end of the process.”

Antti Eriksson CEO of Finnish waste treatment company Kierto said the EPSE process reduced waste treatment costs by as much 50%. EPSE has identified South Africa as the primary market for their technology, stating that an investment of around €48 billion (R784 billion) is needed over the next 10 years to modernise SA’s water and waste water infrastructure, so a cost effective recycling solution is essential.

One of the reasons South Africa has been identified as a primary market is that the volume of waste water from a single mine can be as much as up to 300 000m³ per day.

Kierto will be their partner for rolling it out to waste treatment plants and mining companies, which will have to get a license to use their method. But there are still some tests that need to be done to prove the innovation is suitable in South Africa, where the environment is very different and much hotter than Finland.

“Although the chemistry of AMD generation is straightforward, the final product is a function of the geology of the mining region, presence of micro-organisms, temperature and also of the availability of water and oxygen. These factors are highly variable from one region to another, and, for this reason, the prediction, prevention, containment and treatment of AMD must be considered carefully and with great specificity.” – Council for Scientific and Industrial Research briefing note (2009).

There have been many before this

Dr Kevin Harding from the Industrial and Mining Water Research Unit at University of the Witwatersrand said the claims that EPSE made were feasible, but still needed to be tested.

Mariette Liefferink, CEO of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, echoes this, saying EPSE is not the first innovation into acid mine drainage. Because government has only considered the reverse osmosis process and the iron exchange processes of the desalination process, they have been facilitating engagements between innovators and the mining companies.

“Over the years, there have been hundreds of companies with new solutions to the acid mine drainage problem. Some of them were successful on a small scale. Most of them were not successful,” says Liefferink.

“It all depends on the cost. Many of these technologies are successful for removing the metals and to remove the sulphate. But the problem is the economical viability. Currently, in the Western Basin, Sibanye Gold carries a third of the cost and the remaining two thirds is carried by government and, by extension, the taxpayer.”

She says AMD is the most costly socio-economic and environmental impact of mining and that, if it is not contained, there will be more water deficits and restrictions, and economic activity in six of the country’s provinces may be curtailed.




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The SAHRC launched its Report on the National Hearing on the Underlying Socio-economic Challenges of Mining-affected Communities in South Africa on the 22nd of August 2018. The FSE participated in the Hearing and many of its issues of concern are addressed in the Report. The Report may be opened here as a PDF document.

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Mintails placed into final liquidation

BUSINESS DAY Mintails placed into final liquidation Department of Mineral Resources will join long line of creditors hoping to recoup money 20 September 2018 - 17:27 Lisa Steyn

BUSINESS DAY EXCLUSIVE: Liquidation allows Mintails to shirk environmental liabilities

21 August 2018 - 05:04 Mark Olalde   Pollution: Water resource management consultant Anthony Turton, with the Mintails gold plants and water treatment tanks in the background. Picture: BUSINESS DAY/FREDDY MAVUNDA Mintails Mining and several related companies have announced their liquidation, throwing into question the environmental rehabilitation of highly polluting operations near Johannesburg. Mintails mines and processes gold from a sprawling 1,715ha complex of waste piles and open pits in Krugersdorp and has for years been flagged for noncompliance. Its operations are bordered by informal settlements and suburbs housing thousands of residents, many of whom have complained of health effects, which they blame on radioactive dust and water pollution from Mintails’ mines. Records show that the cost to clean up the environment would be about R330m, but there is only R25.6m available. Observers fear that the situation could deteriorate further, as happened at the Blyvooruitzicht Gold Mine, an abandoned large-scale operation on the West Rand. A case study in the country’s deeply flawed mine closure system, Mintails teetered on the verge of collapse for years and entered business rescue in October 2015. Mariette Liefferink, the activist CEO of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, tracked Mintails for more than a decade and is now working to intercede in the liquidation proceedings as the legal voice for what she labels the "mute environment". "There was poor planning. [Mintails’] due diligence was flawed. They overestimated the gold grade and the resource that could be reclaimed. "They continued to exploit the resource, to reclaim only the profitable parts and never top up the financial provisions," Liefferink says. As the company slips into liquidation, it passes the brunt of its environmental liability to taxpayers and, to an extent, to other mining companies. After Mintails fought for nearly three years to save the company, business rescue practitioner Dave Lake notified the Johannesburg high court in early August of his intention to liquidate the company. Provisional liquidation was granted on August 17 and a liquidator is expected to be appointed soon. THERE IS NO LONGER A REASONABLE PROSPECT OF RESCUING THE COMPANY. The business rescue plan called for the refurbishment of a gold ore processing plant but, according to a memo dated August 1 that Lake sent to the court and to affected parties, it failed when multiple investors ceased funding Mintails. "There is no longer a reasonable prospect of rescuing the company," the memo read. The liquidator will now decide how to pay back creditors with the remaining assets. Environmentalists fear this process could leave environmental liabilities low on the list of what deserves money. According to the business rescue plan, written in December 2016, Mintails owed various creditors more than R1bn, including a shortfall of about R300m in reclamation funding. Due to a web of involved companies, it remains unclear if a large portion of the already insufficient financial provisions can be accessed for environmental cleanup. DRDGold formerly held one of the mining rights and the corresponding trust fund, which are now in the Mintails group. DRDGold CEO Niël Pretorius says he believes that the trust fund contained R18m but he did not identify the trustees, whose consent is vital to unlocking the money. Documents show the Mintails group acknowledged that rehabilitation would probably cost between R300m and R336.5m, but it declined to top up financial provisions. According to the environmental management programme from one of Mintails’ mining rights: "These liabilities are also historic and predate Mintails’ involvement and should thus not be for Mintails’ account." Experts debate this narrow interpretation of the law. Lake wrote in the business rescue plan: "The Mintails group’s rehabilitation liabilities have remained largely unfunded for some time, and there are simply no free funds available to the [business rescue practitioner] to enable him to immediately provide such funding." Legal Resources Centre attorney Lucien Limacher is representing the Federation for a Sustainable Environment. "This is a trend that has been occurring for a couple of years where mining companies have undertaken a business rescue plan or have applied for liquidation because they have failed to really look after the rehabilitation fund," he says. The Legal Resources Centre sent letters to several government agencies, including the department of mineral resources, the department of water & sanitation and the department of energy, asking them to intervene in the situation and threatening to pursue legal action if the department of mineral resources fails to act. Department of water & sanitation spokesperson Sputnik Ratau says they are "engaging Mintails so that the immediate measures can be put into place to ensure water resources protection. A longer-term plan is required to ensure rehabilitation of the mining-impacted areas." Lake declines to answer questions about the failed business rescue and the liquidation but he wrote for Moneyweb in January 2017 and laid out his argument for Mintails’ use of business rescue: "Mintails was sick – but it wasn’t terminal." Now the situation has become what Liefferink calls "pass the parcel", with Mintails playing the part of a "scavenger company", a term coined by researchers to describe under-resourced outfits that buy the scraps left over from larger mining companies and ultimately abandon them. Large gold, coal and platinum mines rarely, if ever, properly close in SA and there wasn’t one large-scale mine in Gauteng that achieved full, legal closure between 2011 and 2016. Mintails’ case will not affect the law that ring-fences financial assurances for reclamation, Limacher says. "But it is precedent-setting in that mines might now start applying for liquidation to avoid paying the cost of rehabilitation." Mintails’ West Rand concessions came in part from DRDGold, which also remines waste piles, and from Mogale Gold, which was in judicial management when Mintails acquired it in 2006. Since then, Mintails engaged in a pattern of environmental degradation. For example, the department of water & sanitation found in an August 2014 inspection that Mintails transported "slurry/sludge" in unlined trenches, completed insufficient monitoring, spilled slurry from pipelines and implemented no storm water management system at a pollution control dam. In December 2016, polluted runoff from waste piles was found to be seeping through a dam wall into the Wonderfonteinspruit, which has immediate downstream agricultural uses in the community of Kagiso. Now it will largely be up to the liquidator and regulators to protect the environment and public health. "That is the pattern that seems to be followed in the gold mining industry, and, I assume, would be followed in the coal and platinum mining industries, as well. "As soon as a mine is no longer very profitable, it transfers its assets," Liefferink says. "That seems to have the tacit support of the department of mineral resources." However, the department of mineral resources sent a statement that reads: "The department will engage with the appointed provisional liquidators with the intention to safeguard the environmental and social responsibilities." Mintails former CEO Johan Moolman declined to comment except to say he quit on June 26 when he learned a new investor had bought the company. Mvest Capital agreed to purchase Mintails from Paige, a vehicle of the UK-based Harbour family, with the understanding that Mvest would inject R30m into the beleaguered company to stimulate the business rescue plan. Mvest decided against handing over the full amount, paying only R5.5m. Mvest director Matthew Moodley acknowledges the initial agreement and the R5.5m. He says that after a month it became apparent the deal would require more investment to succeed. "With the increased need for working capital in July, Mvest took a decision to withdraw from the transaction," Moodley says, adding that Mvest did not "conclude a transaction with Paige". Liefferink says these companies are all "jumping from a sinking ship". She fears Mintails will go the way of the abandoned Blyvooruitzicht Gold Mine, which was once one of the country’s most productive gold operations and is now a source of pollution, violent illegal mining gangs and headaches for adjacent mines. Mintails has followed a strikingly similar pattern. In the Blyvooruitzicht case, two companies, DRDGold and Village Main Reef, almost completed a business deal to sell the nearly exhausted mine and both walked away, claiming the other carried responsibility. "That whole area, just like Blyvooruitzicht, will be left like it is," Liefferink said. While neighbouring mining companies will probably have to pump water from the void in Mintails’ absence, the consequences of "the dust fallout and the toxic water in the river systems" will be carried by communities and by the municipality. Additional reporting by #MineAlert manager Tholakele Nene


Water Crisis

More than two decades ago, science advocate IsmailMore than two decades ago, science advocate IsmailSerageldin forewarned that “the wars of the next centurywill be fought over water, unless we change our approachto managing this precious and vital resource”. Thissentiment is perilously close for comfort for South Africa,whose water crisis is manifesting with dire consequences.Given that the country has done little in the recent past to rectifyits water challenges, it will soon pay the price, financially, socially andeconomically, says Mariette Liefferink, CEO of the Federation for aSustainable Environment (FSE). The rest of the Document may be opened as a PDF document.



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