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Contaminating livelihoods

Written by  Wednesday, 30 July 2014 08:53
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Hundreds of thousands use Wonderfonteinspruit catchment area tainted by mining waste


Dishea Nephtaly sits on the river bank and waits patiently for the fish to bite. He knows it could take hours, but the prize is worth it.
For the Khutsong resident, the fishing is often good at Padda Dam. When it is, he sells his catch to local residents or puts it on the dinner table.
“I’ve been fishing here for 10 years...we eat the fish and there’s no problem”, he says. “Look, we can tell the water isn’t very clean because of all the mining around here. The fish still taste good.”
But less than a kilometre away, the warnings are clear: a municipal sign advises residents not to drink or cook from the tainted Wonderfonteinspruit because the water is dangerous for human consumption. Toxic water pools alongside the signboard, mining salts lace the surrounding soil like confetti.
Watching Nephtaly cast another line into the polluted waters, Mariette Liefferink shudders, horrified. “People should not be eating this fish or selling it to communities”, says the environmental activist. “There could be long-term health impacts from ingesting it. We just don’t know.”
But Nephtaly, like many residents of Khutsong, has never heard that the Padda Dam is one of 36 radiological hot spots in the Wonderfonteinspruit Catchment Area, a collection of sites authorities believe “could be impacted by waterborne radioactive material within the catchment and potentially be a public health hazard”.
Flowing through one of the riches gold mining areas in the world, the wonderfonteinspruit has been the silent, helpless victim of a century of the industry’s pollution.
In 2009, authorities identified 36 hot spots, including dams, wetlands and canals, that contain elevated levels of cadmium, cobalt, copper, zinc, arsenic and uranium, some requiring immediate remediation.
Burt five years later, activists like Liefferink, who heads the Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE), say nothing has been done to remove the potential risks for the more than 400 000 people living in mining towns such as Randfontein, Bekkersdal, Carletonville and Khutsong, whose lives are tied to a 100 km stretch of the water system.
One of the 36 sites, the Lancaster Dam is a category one site, where there is “no reason to delay immediate action”. The once-pristine dam , the source of the Wonderfonteinspruit, remains a poisonous, radioactive mess of acid mine water, devoid of all life.
“Nothing has changed here or at the other sites”, says a disheartened Liefferink, staring at the dead dam. “People are still irrigating their vegetable gardens in the Wonderfonteinspruit. Animals are still watering at areas which were identified as radiological hot spots. Children are still swimming in radiological hot spot areas in Bekkersdal (Donaldson Dam). Affected parties have not been identified and supplied with alternative water resources.”
Several studies by Frank Winde, an uranium expert from the North West University, have worned how poor communities living alongside the Wonderfonteinspruit may be exposed to uranium pollution from historic gold mining waste seeping into the catchment.
This water then finds its way into the food chain of subsistence farmers either through irrigation of gardens or livestock watering.
Farmers like Jacob Sehloho and his girlfriend, Emina. The Rastafarian couple have abandoned their withering farm in the heart of Khutsong’s “danger zone”, alongside the Wonderfonteinspruit, and another radiological hot spot.
“Since we heard about this water pollution we are too scared to eat our vegetables”, says Sehloho. “A lot of people use this water and they have skin problems, and cramps. Sometimes, even cancer. When you do your laundry, there are these mining salts in your clothes. We don’t know if they are radioactive.”
He points to 78-year old Albert Nyambanga, happily watering his onions directly from water sourced from the Wonderfonteinspruit. Like many local farmers, he has diverted the Wonderfonteinspruit – also tainted by sewage – to directly feed his vegetable patch. “We have run workshops with the community but there is no alternative, so people continue to use the water. People are just trying to survive.”
In December, the Saturday Star revealed how David Hamman of the North West University’s Potchefstroom campus detected significant levels of radioactive uranium and heavy metals in soil, water and cattle tissue samples in his study to gauge the extent of mining-related pollution in the Wonderfonteinspruit.
The uranium concentration was 375.78 times higher in the soil samples, and for the cattle samples, 126.75 times higher in the liver, 4 350 times higher in the kidney, 47.75 times higher in the spleen, 31.6 times higher in the muscle tissue, 60 times higher in the bone and 129 times higher in the hair than his control group, drawn from the Mooi River.
Since the alarm was raised in the 1960s, there have been hundreds of studies to determine the gravity of water pollution in the Wonderfonteinspruit. If stacked, those reports will reportedly tower 5m, with the bibliography alone reaching more than 120 pages.
Heavy metal concentrations are higher in the upper reaches of the river near Krugersdorp, Randfontein and Kagiso, because a large percentage of the pollutants sink into the sediments as the water flows downstream.
“this means that under normal circumstances water tests in lower areas do not cause great concern, and users may feel that they are not under threat from heavy metal contaminants”, Liefferink, the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, explains.
If the sediments are in any way disturbed the uranium can easily be dislodge from the sediments and reabsorbed into the water column.
In 2004, a water Commission report showed the sediment of the system contained elevated levels of heavy metals and uranium and its authors, who included Winde, recommended the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) take regulatory decisions. Instead the regulator disclaimed the findings of this report, commissioning a team of German physicists who produced the restricted Brenk Report.
Its authors found that the more than 400 000 living in the Wonderfonteinspruit were seriously contaminated by dangerously high levels of radioactive radium pollutants, including lead and polonium.
Their study, which the NNR reportedly tried to keep under wraps, warned there was no natural water in the entire area deemed safe for humans, animals and plants.
A later study by the NNR would find some vegetable produce contaminated in the area. By April 2009, the NNR and the Department of Water Affairs released a report, the Wonderfonteinspruit Catchment Area: remediation Action Plan, “to determine a logical process to start the clean-up of the Wonderfonteinspruit catchment”. The two state agencies had commissioned a radioactive contamination specialist task team, including Winde, to conduct the report.
“The overriding intention is to start with the clean-up action as soon as possible, and not to wait until everything is known”, says the report. A steering committee, comprised by the NNR, the department, the Chamber of Mines and the FSE, among others, was meant to drive the remediation process.
But until June it has not met for three years.
Stephinah Mudau, the head of the environmental department at the Chamber of Mines, says the committee’s work is being revived.
Liefferink blames the NNR, which she says is legislatively mandated to deal with radiological waste. She points to its response to a civil society question posed in 2012 whereby the NNR stated the remediation action plain is “not a NNR document,” but a “Water Affairs document”.
“The NNR and the mining industry (do) not regard this document as a high-confidence study and therefore cannot respond to any of its contents,” reads its response.
This week the regulator stated: “The NNR is not aware of any confirmed over-exposure to members of the public relating to the WCA (workmen’s compensation) issues raised. With the data available the NNR can confirm that the sources of contamination are diffuse in nature and that members of the public are not in any imminent danger.”
The department did not respond to the Saturday Star.
Winde, whose studies have found that uranium levels in the water resources of the whole catchment have increased since 1997 because of the decant of acid mine drainage on the West Rand, says remediating certain contaminated sites may not be the answer.
In many cases, he believes, short-term intervention measures like restricting access to polluted water will be more appropriate than attempting to remediate contaminated sites.
From his vegetable farm in Kagiso, Patrick Molefe* has watched the surrounding mine dumps obscure more of the barren skyline.
“The water looks clear, and clean, but we know we can’t drink it. We’re too afraid”, says the elderly farmer.
He and his fellow farmers have been waiting for a borehole to be installed since 2010. “Until we get it, we have to use the wetland. Who else must the plants grow?”
As he starts his 2 km journey home, he proudly shows off his wheelbarrow full of mielies.
“I’ve harvested three bags this week. I won’t have to buy pap for three months.” He smiles, then shrugs. “A man has to eat.”
*Not his real name.

MINING

Notification of the Withdrawal of the Application of an Amendment of the Environmental Authorisation and Environmental Management Programme for the Sweet Sensation Sand Mining Operation in Free State

The concerted efforts and submissions to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), the Applicant and its appointed Environmental Assessment Practitioner (EAP) by the Protect Vaal Eden Committee, Vaal Eden community, and the Federation for a Sustainable Environment have resulted in the withdrawal of the application of an amendment of the environmental authorisation and environmental management programme for the Sweet Sensation Sand Mining operation adjacent to the Vaal River.  The EAP was notified by the DMRE that further specialist studies would be required to determine the impact the application for a screening plant and process would have on the environment and that a Regulation 31 amendment process, which involves a public participation process, must be undertaken.  The FSE welcomes the DMRE’s notification. Notification letter attached for download

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Mining activists in SA face death threats, intimidation and harassment - report

SATURDAY STAR | 19 APRIL 2019, 7:41PM | SHEREE BEGA Picture:Yvette Descham On August 13 2013, Billy M heard gunshots at the gate of his house. He didn't know who fired the gun, and, worried that local traditional leadership might be involved, he didn't report the incident to the police. For the next five years, the community activist from Fuleni, a small rural village in KwaZulu-Natal bordering one of SA's oldest and largest wilderness areas, the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, continued to receive threats.  "We know our lives are in danger. This is part of the struggle," he says, simply. Billy M's account is contained in a new report released this week, 'We know Our  Lives Are in Danger’: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, which documents how community activists in mining areas face harassment, intimidation and violence. The report details how in Billy M's case, mining company Ibutho Coal had applied for rights to develop a coal mine in Fuleni in 2013. The development would have required the relocation of hundreds of people from their homes and farmland and destroy graveyards. "The mine's environmental impact assessment estimated that more than 6000 people living in the Fuleni area would be impacted. 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. More than three years later, the police have not identified any suspects in his killing."Nonhle Mbuthuma, another Xolobeni community leader and spokesperson of the ACC, has also faced harassment and death threats from unidentified individuals. "I know I am on the hit list.… If I am dying for the truth, then I am dying for a good cause. I am not turning back," she says.But other mining areas have had experiences similar to that of Xolobeni. "While Bazooka’s murder and the threats against Nonhle have received domestic and international attention, many attacks on activists have gone unreported or unnoticed both within and outside the  country."This is, in part, because of "fear of retaliation for speaking out, and because police sometimes do not investigate the attacks", the authors found.The origin of these attacks or threats are often unknown. "So are the perpetrators, but activists believe they may have been facilitated by police, government officials, private security providers, or others apparently acting on behalf of mining companies. "Threats and intimidation by other community members against activists often stem from a belief that activists are preventing or undermining an economically-beneficial mining project. 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. "Such activities have depleted water supplies, polluted the air, soil, and water, and destroyed arable land and ecosystems."Researchers also documented cases of police misconduct, arbitrary arrest, and excessive use of force during protests in mining-affected communities, "which is part of a larger pattern in South Africa".Last year, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at Wits University documented various efforts by traditional authorities to stifle opposition to mines in their communities. "In some cases, traditional authorities label those opposing mines as anti-development and troublemakers, thus alienating and stigmatising them.As a result, community members are often afraid to speak out against a mine in open consultations," CALS found.Research by the SA Human Rights Commission, too, has found that community members sometimes “are afraid to openly oppose the mine for fear of intimidation or unfavourable treatment (by the Traditional Authority)."The SAHRC says many mining-affected communities are experiencing “the creation of tension and division within communities as a result of mining operations.Sometimes, threats and intimidation against activists come from community members who have been promised economic benefit from the proposed project or are politically allied with the government or traditional authority."Local communities often do not benefit from mining activities, says the report. "Although South African law requires the development of social and labour plans (SLPs) that establish binding commitments by mining companies to benefit communities and mine workers, CALS has documented significant flaws in the development and implementation of SLPs."Despite the environmental and social costs of mining, the government is not adequately enforcing relevant environmental standards and mining regulations throughout South Africa. The SAHRC has found that the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) often fails to hold mining companies accountable, "imposing few or no consequences for unlawful activities and therefore shifting the costs of pollution to local communities."Compliance with regulatory obligations, as well as monitoring and enforcement of such responsibilities, remains a crucial concern in the context of mining activities," says the SAHRC, noting how the DMR and other governmental agencies often do not respond to complaints filed against mines by community members.The report's authors describe how the lack of government action and oversight has also helped make the mining industry one of the least transparent industries in South Africa. Information that communities require to understand the impacts of mines and to hold mining companies accountable for harmful activities is often not publicly available. "Such information includes environmental authorisations, environmental management programs, waste management licences, atmospheric emission licences, mining rights, mining work programmes, social and labour plans, or compliance and enforcement information."The only way to access such information is through a request under South Africa’s access to information law, a procedure that the World Health Organisation has called 'seriously flawed' and which the DMR regularly flouts. In addition, mining companies and the government rarely consult meaningfully with communities during the mining approval process, resulting in uninformed and poor government and industry decisions that do not reflect community perspectives or have their support," says the report.The authors assert how the threats, attacks, and other forms of intimidation against community rights defenders and environmental groups have created an environment of fear "that prevents mining opponents from exercising their rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and undermines their ability to defend themselves from the threats of mining".In its November 2018 review of South Africa’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed concern about “reports of human rights defenders, particularly those working to promote and defend the rights under the Covenant in the mining and environmental sectors, being threatened and harassed". It recommended that South Africa provide a safe and favourable environment for the work of human rights defenders to promote and protect economic, social, and cultural rights, including by "ensuring that all reported cases of intimidation, harassment, and violence against human rights defenders are promptly and thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice". Mining activist Mariette Liefferink, who made submissions to the UN committee, tells how it has become increasingly difficult to work as an environmental rights defender in South Africa.   "There is an overwhelming body of evidence of intimidation, whether it is by means of frontal attacks or more insidious attacks on activists."International and South African law requires South Africa to guarantee the rights of all people to life, security, freedoms of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and the rights to health and a healthy environment, say the authors."The attacks, threats, and obstacles to peaceful protest described in this report prevent many community activists in South Africa from exercising these rights to oppose or raise concerns about mines, in violation of South Africa’s obligations." 

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