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Unfolding Environmental Disaster - Health-e News

Tuesday, 11 June 2019 09:34
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The South African Health News Service

 

Mintails mining company and its subsidiaries have left the door open to zama-zamas and looters at their abandoned mine in the West Rand. Picture: Health-e News

 

Unfolding environmental disaster

Bernadette Maguire

 June 4, 2019

Features

 

Zama zamas are looting an abandoned mine near Krugersdorp. In the process, they have cut the electric cable to the acid mine drainage which poses the environment and the health hazards.

A security company responsible for safeguarding a gold treatment plant belonging to Mintails on the West Rand withdrew last week, citing “financial constraints”. The evacuation, which follows the liquidation of the embattled mining company and its subsidiaries, has left the door wide open to zama-zamas and looters, who are plundering the facility and driving their stash off the premises by the bakkie load.

“This is wholesale looting and scavenging of anything of value from copper cables to sheets of metal,” warned environmental activist Mariette Liefferink. “The site is under the control of heavily armed [illegal] miners who control all access to the plant.”

Watching the activity from a distance, the men and women carrying tools and blowtorches clearly know what they are doing, creating the impression that this is organised crime. This past weekend climbers, equipped with ropes, scaled the infrastructure of the upper plant.

 

 Zama zamas are stripping an old mine of anything from copper cables to sheets of metal. Photo: Health-e News.

“Steel construction was falling like nobody’s business,” said an eyewitness. “The liquidators appear to have lost all interest in securing these assets.”

 

Gunfights

The situation has descended into anarchy. The looters are not shy to shoot and in the past week, there have been several gunfights when looters felt security or outsiders were encroaching on “their” site.  

Even the police are scared to intervene. According to witnesses, the authorities have done nothing given the dangers and the large numbers of looters at the facility.

“The Hawks have been fearful to get involved with the result that this is now a free-for-all.  The looting continues with no enforcement whatsoever,” said Liefferink.

She said the most worrying aspect of the looting was the cutting and stealing of a neighbouring electrical cable to Shaft 9 – this cable powers the pump station that removes acid mine water out of the shaft and into a nearby acid mine drainage treatment plant. Millions of litres of water are pumped daily to prevent the acid mine water reaching the surface and decanting into the surrounding Cradle of Humankind.

 

 If the acid mine drainage at Mintails’s mine decants the impact on environment and health could be devastating. Photo: Health-e News

 

Sputnik Ratau, the spokesperson for the Department of Water and Sanitation, confirmed that the cable was sabotaged and stolen on 24 May.  

“Power to the Western Basin AMD pump station, on Mintails’s property, and the AMD (Acid Mine Drainage) Treatment Plant is thus compromised and the facility is currently not operational,” said Ratau.

“If the pumping stops for a prolonged period, like a month, we run the risk of a decant of toxic and radioactive acid mine water into the surrounding Cradle of Humankind.”

The underlying rock structure in the Cradle is porous dolomite and the acid mine water could dissolve the rock, destroying valuable fossils in this UNESCO World Heritage site, which is internationally recognised for its hominid finds.

This would have serious implications for tourism in the area and would inevitably mean job losses.

“Especially for Bolt’s Farm and the Sterkfontein Caves that contain our most precious fossils and we will see an acceleration in the number of sinkholes forming as a result,” said Liefferink.

 

Serious risk

Many of the residents along the water system would be affected by a decant – their water would be contaminated and their health put at serious risk because they do not have access to municipal water.

“The people there are dependent on the water systems for their drinking water, for their animals and for irrigation,” says Liefferink.

The pump station was established by the Department of Water and Sanitation in response to a potential decant.

According to Liefferink, in 2002 the western basin in the area where the mine is situated flooded, leaving acid mine water to flow out with devastating consequences. It resulted in the Tweelopies Spruit and Wonderfontein Spruit becoming radioactive hotspots and acutely toxic, putting lives downstream at risk.  

  

Potential water contamination. Photo: Health-e News

 

“The Department of Water and Sanitation declared it an emergency.  They refurbished the treatment plant which pumps and processes around 40-million litres of acid mind water a day,” said Liefferink.

Her other worry is that the gold treatment plant is the only real asset left and this wholesale looting does not augur well for the recovery of the R460-million environmental liability that Mintails left on the West Rand. This amount was cited in the Parliamentary portfolio committee report by the Department of Minerals and Energy last year.

But the Department of Water and Sanitation said there was no immediate risk of raw AMD decanting. “The water level in the void is around 9-metres below the surface and this is considered ample buffer capacity for now,” said Ratau.

He added that the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA), a state-owned entity charged with financing and implementing bulk raw water infrastructure projects, is working closely with Sibanye Stillwater and Eskom to restore the cable. This could be achieved by as early as Tuesday (4 June). Alternative interventions are also being costed so as to achieve a permanent remedy and for armed security personnel to be deployed at the pump station to deter future attempts of cable theft or other damage to the pump station.

 

Trail of destruction

Mintails has left a veritable trail of destruction:  the area is now characterised by deep, scarring opencast pits, massive unrehabilitated dumps and large bodies of toxic acid mine water. Very little was ever done to remediate the environment after they stripped the gold from the earth and recovered gold from the dumps. Massive cement pipes containing toxic mine tailings residue have been dug up and lie littered for kilometres.  These pose a serious risk to the health of communities living around these mines.

According to a 2013 study by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), exposure to acid mine water has serious health consequences, including an elevated risk of cancer and heavy metal poisoning. The CSIR concluded that an epidemiological study is needed but this has not yet been commissioned.

Liefferink is concerned the authorities are not acting with the necessary urgency and there appears to be no accountability from Mintails, whose main shareholders are based in the United Kingdom.  

“There seems to be a total paralysis on the part of the competent organs of state, such as the Department of Water and Sanitation, the National Nuclear Regulator, the departments of Mineral Resources and Environmental Affairs.  I conducted site visits last week with them but nothing has happened,” she said.

Liefferink also questioned whether President Cyril Ramphosa’s big focus on economic development would be possible with a poor environmental base; water, after all, is a critical economic enabler.  “Without water, there can be no economic growth. It’s important to take cognisance of the nexus between environmental management and economic growth,” she said. – Health-e News

 

Read 6096 times Last modified on Tuesday, 11 June 2019 11:00

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Blasting vibration, dust, and floodlights, too, could harm the community," says the report."During the environmental consultation processes, Billy M led opposition that culminated in a protest by community members in April 2016."The company reportedly abandoned the project in 2016 while another firm, Imvukuzane Resources is reportedly interested in mining in the area.The 74-page report, compiled by Human Rights Watch, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), groundWork, and Earthjustice, describes a system designed to "deter and penalise" mining opponents.The authors conducted interviews with more than 100 activists, community leaders, environmental groups, lawyers representing activists, police and municipal officials, describing the targeting of community rights defenders in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northwest, and Eastern Cape between 2013 and 2018. They report intimidation, violence, damage to property, the use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest for their activities in highlighting the negative impacts of mining projects on their communities. "The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilise to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants," write the authors."Women often play a leading role in voicing these concerns, making them potential targets for harassment and attacks."But municipalities often impose barriers to protest on organisers that have no legal basis while government officials have failed to adequately investigate allegations of abuse."Some mining companies resort to frivolous lawsuits and social media campaigns to further curb opposition to their projects.  The government has a Constitutional obligation to protect activists," write the authors. Picture: Shayne Robinson, Section 27 Authorities should address the environmental and health concerns related to mining "instead of harassing the activists voicing these concerns,” remarks Matome Kapa, attorney at the CER.The report starts with the high-profile murder of activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, who was killed at his home after receiving anonymous death threats in 2016. Rhadebe was the chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), a community-based organisation formed in 2007 to oppose mining activity in Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape.  "Members of his community had been raising concerns that the titanium mine that Australian company Mineral Commodities Ltd proposed to develop on South Africa’s Wild Coast would displace the community and destroy their environment, traditions, and livelihoods. 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In some cases, government officials or representatives of companies deliberately drive and exploit  these community divisions, seeking to isolate and stigmatize those opposing the mine."The Minerals Council South Africa, which represents 77 mining companies, including some in the research areas, responded that it “is not aware of any threats or attacks against community rights defenders where (its) members operate”.The authors state that while the mining sector and the government emphasise how mining is essential for economic development, "they fail to acknowledge that mining comes at a high environmental and social cost, and often takes place without adequate consultation with,or consent of, local communities".The absence of effective government oversight means that mining activities have harmed the rights of communities across South Africa in various ways. 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