Hope springs (not) eternal in spat over toxic sludge Featured

Tuesday, 24 June 2014 11:36
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by Zwanga Mukhuthu of M&G

Fears that a facility to treat acid mine drainage could contaminate plants, animals and people. Government is forging ahead with a R1-billion project for the treatment of acid mine drainage in Ekurhuleni – despite a fierce backlash by residents and environmental experts over the millions of cubic metres of toxic, and possibly radioactive, sludge the project will churn out.


More than 1 000 residents have signed a petition against the siting of the treatment plant at the Grootvlei mine’s number three shaft, about 5km from the centre of Springs, which forms part of the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality on Johannesburg’s East Rand.
A spokesperson for the residents warned that the plant could render the area uninhabitable and described the government as “mad” for locating it there.
At the same time, a prominent environmentalist has pointed to the dangers of seepage into a residential and farming area with an already fragile ecosystem.
Water affairs department spokesperson Sputnik Ratau conceded there had been “public resistance” during the environmental impact assessment process. But he also said ¬construction and pumping would go ahead despite the backlash, after the environmental affairs minister granted authorisation under ¬environmental law for emergency works.
The contract was awarded last month to the CMC/PG Mavundla Engineering Eastern Basin joint venture for a price of R956-million.

Short term measure

The scheme is a short-term stabilisation measure to head off the worsening acid mine drainage (AMD) crisis in the eastern basin of the Witwatersrand, a 768km2 “mine residue area” that includes agricultural land and highly populated centres such as Benoni, Brakpan, Springs and Nigel.
It will comprise a neutralising plant for the AMD, a pump station, underground pipelines and a 14m-high facility to store 1.75-million cubic metres of high-density sludge, to be extracted over a maximum of eight years. Construction will take about 18 months.
Because it is hygroscopic – that is, it draws water from the atmosphere – the toxic sludge will remain in a permanently jellified form.
Once treated, the water will go back into the Blesbokspruit, part of the Vaal Barrage system, a national water resource. This has provoked major worries among downstream users, including South Africa’s largest beef-farming operation, Karan Beef near Heidelberg (see “Livelihoods under threat”).
AMD is the result of water flooding subterranean voids left by gold mining at disused mines where pumping has stopped, and becoming acidified by contact with pyrites. Apart from the risk of ground water being contaminated, the water can “decant” – break the surface – and pollute surface water bodies.

Threatened ecosystems

Decanting has already occurred in the western basin of the Witwatersrand around Krugersdorp.
Mariette Liefferink, chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, said Springs residents have every reason to be concerned, as the high-density sludge to be extracted and stored will contain toxic and potentially radioactive metals including uranium, aluminium, lead, cadmium, manganese, iron, copper, cobalt and zinc.
Liefferink said that, according to her preliminary assessment, none of the nine sites earmarked for the disposal of metal sludge are suitable.
In a letter to Digby Wells Environmental – the company assessing the environmental impact for a longer-term AMD solution – she warned that the sites are close to the Blesbokspruit, whose ¬“ecological status is already poor … additional stress on the system will be unacceptable”.
Liefferink said if the sludge is disposed of in an unlined facility or close to wetlands it could result in the seepage or movement of toxic material into ground water, soil, wetlands and surface water bodies. Without stringent controls, she believes it is almost certain that crop soils will be irrigated with contaminated surface or underground water.
She also warned of the risk to ¬“ecosystem goods and services” on disturbed, fragmented or polluted properties, and of the potentially toxic impact that pollutants that have built up in animals and plants could have on human beings.
The treatment scheme could further reduce species diversity and irreversibly alter the ecosystem, Liefferink said, adding that the well-known Marievale Bird Sanctuary is also at risk.


In response, Ratau said the government had to address the AMD crisis, which it had inherited when it came to power in 1994.
Meanwhile, the water affairs department has come under fire for the two-year delay in awarding the construction tender, amid fears that AMD in the eastern basin will soon rise to the surface.
Ratau revealed that the department’s original intention was to hand out the contract in the last quarter of 2012, but that, “while awaiting approval of funding and the cost-recovery mechanism, the contract award was deferred”.
He conceded that acid water has already breached the ¬“environmentally critical level” – a vital parameter for preventing the contamination of ground water systems – but said that the original measure had been “a conservative estimate based on information ¬available in late 2010”. It could be gradually raised, subject to monitoring.
Responding to claims that the two-year delay could result in cost ¬escalations and possible injuries to construction workers who will now have to work around the clock to catch up, Ratau said the contractor would have to follow a “fast-tracked schedule” to meet the revised level, but that this would not incur additional costs.

Nothing but spin

But Tony Turton, of the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State, said the delay indicates that, “while the government makes public statements that its commitment to the AMD solution is high, the reality is that it is low on the agenda”.
Turton said AMD had decanted into the western basin in 2002, and did so again this year. At its peak, 60 million litres a day bubble to the surface at 18 Winze Shaft in Krugersdorp, he said. This water is now flowing into the Crocodile River, upstream of Hartbeespoort Dam, and the Mooi River, upstream of the Vaal River. It has already affected residents with boreholes, and “there is also a growing fear among rural communities that borehole water is contaminated”.
He said agriculture has also been affected in some areas. In particular, the Coetzee Dam has been heavily contaminated with uranium. “A farmer breached the wall to allow the trapped -sediment to flow out, creating a uranium plume that entered the Potchefstroom drinking water system.”
According to research by North West University, uranium is moving into the food chain, Turton said.
“We know, with a high level of scientific confidence, that the western basin is an ecological disaster … we now see the rapid movement of highly contaminated water though the aquifer. The same will occur, with a reasonably high level of certainty, when the environmentally critical level is breached in any other mining basin, particularly if the aquifer is dolomitic.”
Turton rejected Ratau’s explanation that the critical level had been recalculated in the eastern basin, pointing out that nothing has changed in the rocks underground.
“The claim that the level has been redefined, simply to justify that a delay in the awarding of the Ekurhuleni contract will not cause any damage to the environment, is in my professional opinion nothing more than spin,” he said.
The absence of a clear government policy on mine residue areas poses “a growing risk to millions of people who are living on land that is increasingly geotechnically unstable and contaminated by uranium”, said Turton.
PG Mavundla Engineering project manager Philani Mavundla said that, given his experience with big government contracts, it was “humanly possible to complete the task before disaster could occur”.
In the longer term, a controversial proposal for the remediation of AMD envisages treating it to a potable level and using it to supplement Rand Water’s water supply in Gauteng.
This proposal apparently still awaits Cabinet approval.

Plant contractor denies closeness to Zuma

The winner of the R1-billion contract for the eastern basin acid mine drainage treatment project is also a key contractor in a giant hydroelectric scheme in KwaZulu-Natal. Its price has reportedly jumped threefold since its inception.
PG Mavundla, owned by flamboyant former Greytown mayor Philani Godfrey Mavundla, is part of the CMC Impregilo Mavundla joint venture that is building Eskom’s Ingula pumped storage electricity project in the Little Drakensberg, near Van Reenen’s Pass.
This week Eskom spokesperson Andrew Etzinger said the overall cost of Ingula now stands at R26 billion. In 2012 Business Day reported that the initial cost of the project was a third of this amount, at R8.9 billion.
On completion, originally set for later this year, it will be Eskom’s third-largest pumped storage scheme, with an output of 1 332 megawatts.

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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. This opened the pipes but, as the pump stations and the three wastewater treatment plants remain dysfunctional, there has been no improvement. Raw sewage continues to flow into the Vaal River and into the streets of Emfuleni.”  Monica Ndakisa sweeps overspill from her toilet. There was a “glimmer of hope” when Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, visited the Vaal in January this year, assuring Save that action will be taken and that funds are earmarked in the 2020-2021 budget.  “It seems her enthusiasm has not filtered down to her department,” says Stewart. “After Erwat’s contract was not renewed, the department stated they would undertake the repairs by appointing their own contractors. Tender documents have been languishing on someone’s desk at the department since July.” Sputnik Ratau, spokesperson for the department, says the government has committed resources towards solving the sewage problem in the Vaal.  “Government sent state institutions to assist Emfuleni local municipality (ELM) in this regard; these include SANDF and Erwat. Recently, the department finalised the scope of all that needs to be done to solve the sewage problem. There are 26 work packages that will be advertised in the coming weeks for competent contractors to take part in solving the sewage challenge in the Vaal.”  The department, says Ratau, aims to have a “busy festive season” working with the appointed contractors. “In the 2020/21 financial year, the department has committed R911-million towards solving this challenge. 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”. Ratau says commitment dates, including start and completion dates, “will be sent not only to Save but all interested stakeholders once the contractors are appointed. The department cannot preempt this before the appointments are made.” He says that R7-billion is required to “solve the pollution challenge in ELM. This needs to be coupled with operations and maintenance, which is a function of ELM at local government level”. Save is once again taking the government to court to enforce legislation to ensure infrastructure is repaired within phased completion dates and that sufficient funds are made available for ongoing maintenance and operation of the system by the municipality, supervised by the high court.   Veja’s Mokoena is glad the department is taking over the Vaal clean-up. “This situation was supposed to be fixed a long time ago. So much money has been squandered at the municipal level.” Rand Water’s delay Eight months. That’s how long it took Rand Water to release public water quality records for the Vaal Barrage system to a team of aquatic specialists investigating the ecological health of the river system.  In January, Aquatic Ecosystems of Africa submitted a Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia) application to Rand Water for access to its water quality analysis data for the Vaal Barrage and downstream since 2015.  Nothing happened, it says, until Tshepang Sebulela, the Paia compliance officer from the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) intervened late last month.  New pipelines are being installed in the Vaal. 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. The records landed in the firm’s inbox on 2 October.  Aquatic Systems’ Simone Liefferink says sourcing surface water system data is becoming increasingly difficult. “It’s disturbing the data is not adequately managed, readily accessible to the public and private sectors who pay tax and other water charges for effective catchment management to be implemented.”  Rand Water did not explain the reason behind the delay.  That the information was provided in a PDF format of almost 2 000 pages “frustrates and delays” its interpretation, says Liefferink.  She and her partner, Russell Tate, began their investigation after a major fish kill in the Vaal River in mid-2018. That September they testified at the HRC’s inquiry into the contamination of the Vaal River that high levels of ammonia from the wastewater treatment works was wiping out life in the river system. A snap-shot analysis of the data provided by Rand Water shows high levels of E coli, ammonium and ammonia — key indicators of sewage pollution. Average E coli counts soared from 12 705 colony-forming units per 100ml in 2010 to more than 107 000 in 2018 and 66 923 in 2020.  “The contributing factor is clear — dysfunctional sewage treatment conveyances and treatment plants. More disturbing is the long-standing deterioration of the system that ever increases the loss of biodiversity and other essential ecological functions and human services. Yet this matter is still not treated with extreme urgency,” says Liefferink. HRC’s long-awaited report It’s taken nearly two years for the Human Rights Commission to release its report into the Emfuleni sewage crisis. “Their report has not yet been taken to parliament, nor has it been published. Why?” asks Save’s Stewart. 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