Since the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand Goldfields in 1886, gold mines produced more than 270 tailings storage facilities (TSFs). In terms of their spatial dimensions tailings are by far the most important source of pollution associated with gold mining. In recent years there has been an increase in reclamation of tailings within the Central-, West, East and Klerksdorp, Orkney, Stilfontein and Hartbeesfontein (KOSH) goldfields. In a number of cases it has been identified that reclamation has been incompleted without proper remediation. This article will highlight case studies of inappropriate reclamation activities within the Witwatersrand Goldfields and the associated environmental and social impacts.
The rehabilitation of footprints of reclaimed tailings storage facilities can be a complex endeavour, with misleading results if considered only in the short term. It is vital that the rehabilitation is relevant to the end land-use objectives as stated in closure plans. It is impossible to determine the rehabilitation measures or objectives with the aim of achieving mine closure unless the future land use has been determined in the context of societal and economic expectations.
It must be accepted that some areas will never be suitable for unrestricted development and that these areas will need to be demarcated as such and appropriate land-uses should be proposed and implemented.
Persistently weak gold prices are forcing marginal mines to continue cutting not only operational costs but cutting on concurrent rehabilitation. The failure by some mining companies to remove the entire residue deposits and to conduct concurrent rehabilitation results frequently in the creation of newly contaminated sites since, rather than consolidating contaminated sites, the reprocessing activities resulted in the creation of a number of contaminated sites, where one previously existed. It may also result in the exacerbation of toxic and radioactive dust fallout and water pollution. Applications for the reclamation of tailings storage facilities should only be approved if stipulated reclamation operations of the affected area are adhered to and the tailings storage facility is removed completely. Ideally mining companies involved in reclamation activities should endeavour to go beyond the minimum legal requirements aiming for environmental and social, as well as economical improvements of the affected area.
Reclamation activities provide excellent opportunities for the mining sector to demonstrate a new mind set by not perpetuating the irresponsible practices of the past but to, as good corporate citizens, seek maximal environmental and social, as well as economic, benefit.