Johannesburg: who pays for a century of mining?

Thursday, 23 May 2013 08:26
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Johannesburg – the city of gold – is facing a pollution crisis that could threaten its very existence.

South African officials report that in late 2013 the water on which the city depends will become contaminated, unless immediate measures are taken. It is a threat, warned Professor Terence S. McCarthy, of the School of Geosciences, at University of the Witwatersrand, that could affect the Orange and Limpopo river systems.

This could contaminate water for South Africa's neighbours, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

But although the problem will cost government and the public billions in the years ahead, campaigners argue that one group is unlikely to pay: the mining companies that caused the problem in the first place.

A stinking stream

In some parts of the Witwatersrand, on which Johannesburg and its satellite towns are built, the pollution has already arrived. A government report puts the problem in cold, clinical language: "Following cessation of mining in the area in 1998, the mine void in the Western Basin filled with water and finally began to decant on surface in 2002." The once pristine Tweeloopies Spruit is today a stinking, fetid bright orange stream. The pollution is what the scientists term Acid Mine Drainage – the result of oxygenated water coming into contact with iron pyrites, during the mining process. When this wells up onto the surface the impact is devastating.

As the report by the Department of Water Affairs puts it: "Where the river cascades over falls or rapids, thick crusts of iron and manganese oxides have formed. Over the years since surface decant commenced, the extent of this iron precipitate has extended progressively further downstream. The water is toxic and has a profound impact on aquatic biodiversity." In the Krugersdorp Game Reserve into which the river flows, only the hippo now survive.
A century old legacy

Gold mining, for the past 120 years the bedrock of the South African economy, is today in decline. As the mines closed pumping of the water found underground ceased. Gradually the disused mine shafts filled with water – rising at between 0.3 and 0.4 metres per day. But the streets of central Johannesburg, or the homes in Soweto are not about to be flooded by a filthy flood – its effects are far more insidious.

"On a knife edge"

The water table is threatened when what the scientists term the "Environmental Critical Level" is crossed.* This is estimated to be 1,520 metres below the surface. Marius Keet, Regional Manager for Water Affairs for the region, says the ECL breach will take place in September or October this year.

There is now a race against time to try and prevent this taking place. Two pumps, donated by Central Rand Gold, are awaiting assembly in Germany. These will have to be shipped out and installed before pumping can begin. Mr Skeet estimates installation will be completed in October or November. "We are on the edge," he said in a phone interview. "This is walking on very thin ice."

Breaching the Environmental Critical Level would be deeply worrying, but not an immediate danger to health, says Marius Skeet. "The level is set conservatively," he says. But action is needed now to prevent long-term environmental damage.
Years of warnings

Certainly there have been plenty of official warnings. The first report on the issue dates back to 1957 and subsequent investigations have highlighted the issue at regular intervals. In December 2010 a report by government scientists to an Inter-Ministerial Committee on Acid Mine Drainage called for immediate action. Pumping was needed across the region "as a matter of urgency."

So far – says environmental campaigner, Mariette Liefferink – the response has been completely inadequate. Ms Liefferink, who sits on an official liaison committee with government, says "The tardiness of Government to act has created the current emergency."

Ms Lifferink, who has campaigned on the issues for years, says the proposed treatment of the Acid Mine Water would remove some of the toxic and radioactive metals, however, the sulphate levels would remain "unacceptably high." She points out that the neutralised Acid Mine Water e.g. contains 2,500mg per litre of sulphates – against a World Health Organisation standard for sulphates in drinking water of 200 mg per litre.

"The Government has allocated Rand 433 million ($46 million) for the treatment of AMD. What is required, however, is Rand 6 billion (£633 million)," says Ms Liefferink.

Who pays for the clean-up?

There is no question that coping with the pollution will cost billions and the clean-up will have to continue for generations. The problem is that many of the main perpetrators have long since left South Africa. Companies like the giant mining conglomerate, Anglo-American, have re-listed on the London stock exchange. They have also sold or 'de-bundled' their assets.

In May 2005 the Financial Mail – South African equivalent of The Economist – printed an article entitled: "Last Man in Hot Water." The article quoted Cathy Reichardt, of the University of the Witwatersrand School of Mining Engineering as saying "There's been a culture of denial around dewatering issues and a lot of head-in the-sand activity." As the ore body of mines is gradually worked out, the mines get sold on, and she cited the example of the Grootvlei mine.

Grootvlei once belonged to Gengold, a major mining house. But Gengold sold it to Harmony. It was then sold on, from Petmin to Bema Gold to Pamodzi Gold, which went into liquidation. The assets of Grootvlei were bought by Aurora Mines. This was run by Zondwa Mandela, a grandson of former President Mandela. Aurora chairman was Khulubusa Zuma, nephew of the current president. They promptly turned off the pumps, allowing the mine to flood and sold off the mine infrastructure.

As the then director-general of the Department of Water Affairs, Mike Muller pointed out in 2005, the costs should be carried by the mining companies. "We understand that over the next decade or so, many of the gold mines may cease to be operational. The mines must carry the costs of closure measures, even if they are no longer operational, since it is their activities that have created the pollution hazard by exposing chemically active rock formations to the water."

But with their assets sold off and their headquarters moved outside of South Africa, its highly unlikely the major mining houses will be willing to shoulder the burden. The South African government is in the process of preparing a report on this – apportioning the liabilities for the clean-up. For the present this is confidential, but, says Marius Skeet, it should be available to the public in the next two to three months, "depending on what our legal team decides."

* Environmental Critical Level (ECL), being the level in the mine void above which the water should not be allowed to rise, to protect specific environmental features, including groundwater resources

Author Profile: Martin Plaut is senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and former BBC World Service News' Africa editor, with special focus on South Africa, the Horn and Sudan.

Photo Credits: Hippos in contaminated water. Acid mine drainage coats the hippos at Hippo Dam at the Krugersdorp Game Reserve. Courtesy of Mariette Liefferink.

Read 16939 times Last modified on Friday, 06 November 2015 05:24



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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. 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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”. 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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. 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