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.

Read 21741 times Last modified on Friday, 06 November 2015 06:51


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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. 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"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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