One man's home is another man's uranium dump

Written by  Saturday, 19 July 2014 04:32
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With nowhere else to live, many seek refuge in the radiation wastelands in Gauteng, unaware of the deadly dangers the abandoned mining areas present.

The broken glass from a window pane cracks underfoot, a jarring noise amid the drone of mining equipment in the distance. It is one of the few reminders of a time when this upstairs room was the kitchen of the old Randfontein Club.
Faded photographs in the town museum show people sunbathing and swimming in the lake in the 1980s. There were bars, a jetty and a miniature putting course. Now only the foundations remain after it was closed because of the increasing concentration of uranium in Robinson Lake.
In the past it was a place for the residents of Randfontein – 50km west of Johannesburg – to relax on the weekend and forget their jobs in the mining industry. But in the late 1990s the underground mines started closing because the falling price of gold and uranium made them unprofitable. The mines were abandoned and the water levels inside started rising. Acid mine drainage began seeping into the dam, increasing the level of uranium to levels 220 times higher than the safe limit. The resort closed.
Deep into winter a chill breeze blows across the lake, creating ripples in the clear water. The surface is a stark blue reflection of the sky, with the bottom tainted red from the heavy metals in the water. No alga grow here, no fish swim, no underwater life ripples the surface.

The periphery of the lake is a wide ring of cracked yellow earth. The soil beyond is brown. There are 20m-high blue gum trees. There are yellow signs with “Radiation area – Supervised area” wired to the fence around the area and nailed to the trees.

Gold seam

The Witwatersrand gold seam runs for about 100km, from Randfontein in the west of Johannesburg to Springs in the east. A century of mining drove a mining boom, thanks to this being the world’s largest concentration of the precious metal.
Mine shafts up to 3km deep were sunk. The waste was dumped above ground in over 400 mine dumps or tailings dams that now dot the province. These contain a mixture of heavy metals, and an estimated 600 000 tonnes of uranium.
The Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa) says this is the only place in the world where large numbers of people live next to dumps full of uranium.

It says up to 400 000 people in the Witwatersrand are exposed to low levels of radiation as a result, and tests Cansa did on the teeth of residents in Carletonville found uranium levels 100 times higher than normal levels. It says no research has been done in Gauteng about long-term exposure to mine dumps.
Managers of one of the Witwatersrand mines lived 300m from Robinson Lake. Their large red-brick homes were abandoned when operations ceased in the late 1990s, and have been occupied by squatters.
Abandoned mines
The tarred streets, laid out in a grid, are crumbling and overgrown. A worn football emits a hollow thump each time it is kicked by a handful of children playing in the street. Next to them five young men are sitting with their backs to a wall, trying to absorb some of the weak midday sun.
Two empty cartons of Chibuku sorghum beer have been discarded. There are three unopened ones in a plastic bag. A tall and athletic-looking Ronald Chauke opens one of these, and hands it round. “What does this radiation mean?” he asks, in response to my asking whether they are experiencing any health problems.
I recommend he goes to the clinic and ask for information there, but it is a R22 round trip by taxi to Krugersdorp and people here are lucky if they find work for three days in a week. With the mines gone the only work is as domestic workers.
The men stand at the main intersection coming into Randfontein, waiting to be picked up as day labourers. He does not look at me while I explain that kidney problems are almost guaranteed, and cancer, typically thyroid, is likely.
The National Nuclear Regulator has found uranium concentrations of 16mg a litre in Robinson Lake. Water affairs says a maximum concentration of 0.07mg is safe to drink. In 2002 it was declared a radioactive site thanks to the levels of uranium – one of 50 in the Witwatersrand. The regulator fences these off because people cannot be exposed to them for prolonged time. When people do live in dangerous places, it must move them. But the fences around Robinson Lake keep being stolen for scrap.


South Africa has not done much of its own research, and relies in part on work carried out in eastern Germany, where uranium was mined during the Cold War. Here, old mines are fenced off and exclusion zones are established to ensure no one lives there. Naturally occurring uranium remains radioactive for billions of years, and these areas cannot be rehabilitated.
The National Nuclear Regulator had not responded to requests for comment by the time of going to print.

Chauke does not drink or use the water from Robinson Lake for washing. He does not know what the radiation signs mean, but the lake scares him anyway.
“We know we cannot go near there. The lake is not normal.” Sitting back in his plastic chair he points at a mine dump 3km away. “That is our real problem. When the dust blows you cannot see the other side of the road. It covers everything.” He says it makes him and others cough.
“How can we know what is happening [inside our bodies] if we do not go to the doctor?”

‘How can you know?’

Pride Ngwenya has lived next to Robinson for 15 years, a few houses from Chauke. “We are told nothing so how can you know what is happening inside you?” Wearing a heavy black coat against the cold, he says “the [radiation] signs mean nothing if they do not tell you”.
“Obviously that lake and the mines are making us sick. But because nobody gives us the information on what is happening. You say it will make our children have problems, so what can we do because this is where we live?”
Uranium and other heavy metals are dispersed through water and wind. With Johannesburg being a watershed, rivers start here and flow east and west towards the Indian and Atlantic oceans.
Research by the nuclear regulator says radiation seeps into these rivers from tailings dams and is carried far downstream. The town of Potchefstroom is down-river from Randfontein, and is home to Professor Frank Winde’s laboratory. A lecturer in geography and environmental studies at North-West University, he says there are more than 600 000 tonnes of uranium sitting above the soil in Gauteng.
Uranium levels inside kettles he tested in the town were 20 times higher than levels in towns with water that was not affected by mining. The South African levels for uranium in water are four times the level recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO), he says. Untreated water that he tested upstream had levels 4 000 times higher than this limit.

Isolated tests

Although isolated tests have been conducted, there has never been a comprehensive study of the air and water pollution from mine dumps.
The nuclear regulator has found uranium levels in Lancaster Dam outside Potchefstroom were 1.9mg a litre, and those at the nearby Hippo Pond were 2.1mg. A brickyard next to the dam uses the sand here to create building material. The WHO says 0.015mg a litre is the maximum.
Very little research has been done into airborne pollution – uranium in the dust is so fine that it can be blown far afield. A 2002 study by the government’s Council for Geoscience said: “Mining has resulted in the dispersal of radioactive material into the environment via windblown dust, waterborne sediment and the sorption and precipitation of radioactivity from water into sediment bodies.”

It also mentions the problem of no research on air pollution. “The lack of information has been identified as a serious information gap” and there was a need for a “comprehensive, credible monitoring programme”. 

David Hamman, a researcher at North-West University, found traces of uranium in the kidneys of cattle living around the Wonderfonteinspruit.

Heavy metal vegetation

This river starts a few kilometres from where Chauke, in Randfontein, is sitting. Their kidneys had uranium levels 4 350 times higher than cattle living elsewhere. This was because of accumulation of heavy metals in the grass they were eating, thanks to dust and water, he found.
The South African Nuclear Energy Corporation released research in 2008 on vegetation around the Gerhard Minnebron wetlands near Potchefstroom. This found that levels of radioactive substances in plants such as oats and onions were three times higher than those considered safe for consumption. Speaking last year, former minerals minister Susan Shabangu said radiation levels were “not at a level that poses a threat to communities”.
In Krugersdorp, there is a community living on top of an old mine. The soil in the Tudor Shaft informal settlement was tested in 2010 by the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, an NGO, and found to have uranium levels of eight millisievert – the legal limit is one millisievert.
The residents and tailings dam were meant to be moved in 2010, but the federation opposed this, ¬saying that disturbing the earth would throw uranium into the air. They requested that research be done before work went ahead. In their court application around the same time they cited the lack of research.

Where the technology was not there in the past to extract them, companies are now re-mining the dams, thanks to the higher prices of gold and other heavy metals. This will see the dumps disappear. High-pressure water blasts the dams apart, and the sludge is carried away by pipes to processing plants. At present, there is research into the effect of disturbing the heavy metals, and the toll on nearby communities.

Remediation costs

There are 6 000 abandoned mines in South Africa, and the auditor general said in 2009 that it will cost at least R30-billion to remediate these. The legislation around mines is based on the principle of “polluter pays” but until the 1980s mines did not have to bear the cost of remediating the areas they had operated in.
Now, the mines are fully responsible. But the mines, through the Chamber of Mines, argue that current companies cannot be held liable for the negligence of companies that have closed. Environmental groups have opposed this and said that when a company is transferred (all mines and their dumps are owned by someone) its assets and liabilities are carried through to the next owner.
The Gauteng part of this strategy – “Regional Mine Closure” – says the worst affected population when it comes to exposure to possible radiation are “informal settlement dwellers” living next to affected rivers.
These are people who are likely to be more at risk of illness thanks to their “poor nutritional status related to poverty and the prevalence of HIV and Aids”, it said.


Read the original article with images:
What does uranium do?
When uranium is ingested it is deposited in the kidneys, lungs, brain and bone marrow. The alpha particles – which contain massive doses of energy – sit in these parts and damage the tissue around them. Because it is an endocrine disrupter, it increases the risk of fertility problems and reproductive cancer. Large doses are fatal, but the constant exposure to low levels has intergenerational effects that are still not fully understood.
Mining’s inevitable legacy
Robinson Lake is across a gravel road from the treatment works for the West Rand basin. When the underground mines in the area shut down, they stopped pumping water from their shafts. These filled up and the water mixed with heavy metals underground. In the late 2000s this water started spilling out of abandoned shafts and into local rivers and wetlands. The water affairs department said it needed a billion rand to build treatment works, which involved extending a plant already run by the mines. This is now operating and has stopped the decant into this basin.
The central and eastern basins – Gauteng has three major water basins – are filling up but those treatment works are also nearing operation. They will have to operate forever, with an annual cost estimated by water affairs of around R300-million, to ensure that untreated water does not seep into water sources.



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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. Buang Jones, the Gauteng manager of the HRC, says the provincial report has been finalised.  “It’s with the commissioners now for final adoption and approval. Once it’s been approved, it will be shared with implicated parties and they’ll have 10 days to comment. This is a countrywide issue and the report seeks to address broader challenges when it comes to river pollution and wastewater management,” he says.  Read the original article here.


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