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Govt prioritises fight against acid mine water in Gauteng

Monday, 20 June 2016 10:37
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JOHANNESBURG ( – Government’s acknowledgment of the severity of acid mine drainage (AMD) in the Witwatersrand, Gauteng, and the subsequent priority given to taking steps to alleviate the problem are of “significant importance”, states Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE) CEO Mariette Liefferink.

After years of numerous mines having decanted, or verged on the precipice of decanting acid mine water, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) has taken strategic steps with the allocation of funds and plans to tackle the issue of acid mine water poisoning water courses throughout South Africa.

Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane announced in May that a yearly allocation of R600-million will be committed to directly address the AMD issue. The budget will come from the National Treasury. The announcement was made at the South West Vertical Shaft, in the Central basin, in Germiston, where the DWS hosted industry experts, together with the implementing agent, the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority.

Mokonyane says the solution “promises to simultaneously augment water supply to the nation’s economic hub of the Gauteng region”, adding that the long-term intervention will, therefore, turn the AMD problem into a long-term sustainable solution by producing fully treated water that will significantly increase water supply to the Vaal river system and defer the need for further costly augmentation beyond Phase 2 of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) for “at least another 30 years”.

The solution proposed by the DWS pivots on turning a polluted resource, which is “considered with contempt”, into a commodity that can assist in making more water resources from the Vaal river system available. Further, with the support of the National Treasury, the DWS has decided to cap the contributions of water users at only 33% of the cost of the project to address the AMD issue. The intention of government is to recover the balance of 67% from the mines through a proposed environmental levy.

In the interim, however, prior to the implementation of the policy and associated consultations, government will cover the anticipated costs. Almost 1 000 short- and long-term jobs have been created through the solution, which started implementation in 2014. AMD is a growing issue, stemming from underground mining operations as far back as when commercial-scale mining began in South Africa.


Liefferink tells Mining Weekly that AMD has been a well-known problem since 1903 and reached critical levels when it started decanting from the Western basin in 2002. This decanting was subsequently halted in 2012 when the DWS intervened and deployed dewatering equipment to treat AMD decanting from within the mines and prevent further decanting as part of a short-term strategy.

“In July 2013, the feasibility studies for the long-term treatment of AMD . . . were finalised at a cost of R25-million,” she says, adding, however, that officials of the DWS were pressured into accelerating their efforts into concluding the findings of the study. The study included determining the feasibility of available technologies and apportionment of liability. At the moment, treatment of AMD is active in the Western and Central basins.

The DWS issued a statement in April, claiming treatment works for AMD in the Eastern basin were ready to go into operation. Liefferink notes, however, that, pending environmental assessments on the sludge generated by this plant, the treatment works will only be fully operational in 2020. In addition, the treatment of AMD at the plant in the Eastern basin only deals with the neutralisation of AMD and not further purification and the removal of salts, according to Liefferink.

She says government’s recent acknowledgement of the severity of the situation is heartening, adding that there are still many gaps in the available information and many uncertainties as to how to further treat AMD so that it can be released into water courses and potentially be used by the agriculture industry and also be converted into potable water for domestic consumption. The first major issue, she says, concerns the reconciliation strategies for the integrated Vaal river system, as the system currently suffers from a growing number of deficiencies.

Even with the introduction of more volumes of water from the LHWP’s Phase 1, Liefferink says, treated AMD will still be required to contribute to resolving deficiencies in the Vaal river system. Further, she notes that, according to a recent statement by Mokonyane, there are plans to introduce desalination plants to treat AMD by 2020, thereby enabling fully- treated AMD to be fed into natural water courses and used downstream by the agriculture industry or to be purified as a potable water supply by a municipal entity or water utility Rand Water.

However, any desalination of sulphate-rich AMD is being delayed, owing to the State’s failure to proactively and timeously conduct an environmental-impact assessment. This will be followed by the construction of another treatment plant, which Liefferink presumes will use reverse osmosis technology. “During the period [leading up to the plant’s commissioning], it is hoped there will be no water restrictions, or poor water quality because of the continued discharge of highly saline water into the Vaal river system. These potential risks can only be mitigated by releasing water from the Vaal dam and a deficit in the upper regions of the Vaal river, which could have severe economic impacts,” she says.

Liefferink points out that, in the Eastern basin, as a result of the Aurora mine ceasing the pumping of water that accumulated in the mine, no water has been released into the Vaal river system. However, with the implementation of the short-term AMD solution in the Eastern basin, a significant volume of salt-rich water is expected to be added to the Vaal river system. The salinity issue is significant, she points out. Treated AMD water released from mines, but without the removal of sulphates, has been recorded as having sulphate levels as high as 3 000 mg/ℓ, with more than 100 Mℓ of water a day to be pumped from the Eastern basin. Such a salt-rich water resource could have drastic impacts on the agriculture industry. For example, water with a salinity of more than 250 mg/ℓ of sulphate has resulted in lower fertility rates in cattle, as it suppresses copper and selenium. Irrigation of crops will also be affected by increased costs, owing to farmers having to use alternative methods for removing salts, which will increase the rate of corrosion of metal fittings in water distribution systems.

Further, Liefferink says that even State- owned power utility Eskom will be significantly affected, as the utility draws water from rivers and dams to use in the cooling towers at its power stations. “Eskom’s requirements for water are between 15 mg/ℓ and 40 mg/ℓ of sulphate.” The international acceptable level of salt in drinking water is 200 mg/ℓ of sulphate, she says, adding that this will require Rand Water to desalinate a sulphate-rich water resource at an additional cost, thereby impacting on rate- payers’ pockets.

Besides treating AMD water in a desalination plant to remove salts, another possible solution is running treated AMD through a large body of water, such as the LHWP. However, Liefferink says it is the considered opinion of the FSE that pollution should be treated at its source. “It is unrealistic to use very expensive water of very good quality (referring to water of the LHWP) to simply dilute a water resource that is highly saline.” She adds that greater public consultation is required to ensure overall treatment of AMD is undertaken in a transparent and inclusive manner. Liefferink asserts that one of the biggest challenges with resolving the AMD issue is the apportionment of liability and holding guilty parties to account for remediation and rehabilitation activities. She suggests that, while it may be easy to point out responsible agents, such as mine owners, managers, executive directors and even shareholders, it is not always as easy to hold them all to account, as certain mines no longer formally exist after having been closed, liquidated or placed under business rescue.

Note:  this is an extract from the comprehensive article on


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‘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. 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