Carte Blanche visits Grootvlei mine at Marievale Wetland

Marievale wetland, near Springs on the East Rand, has been world-famous for its abundant birdlife for decades. Listed under the Ramsar convention on internationally important wetlands, one of only a few such sites in South Africa, this paradise is in danger. An upstream gold mine has been dumping billions of litres of contaminated water into the Blesbokspruit, the river that feeds Marievale. The problems at this mine could be a threat to the whole East Rand region. The polluted water – about a hundred million litres a day – is pumped from deep underground by No. 3 Shaft of the Grootvlei gold mine to prevent the flooding of its tunnels. Jock Botha is the foreman of 3 Shaft.

Jock Botha (Foreman: #3 Shaft, Grootvlei mine): ‘Firstly, this is the only shaft that are pumping water for the rest of the mine to be able to mine in this area. Secondly it is very, very important because this is the last standing shaft pumping on the East Rand Basin.’

In other words, without 3 Shaft, Grootvlei mine would drown along with other mines on the East Rand.

Jock: ‘The pump station is about 780 metres below surface. We’re now on the way down there.’

It’s hot, humid and noisy in the pump station, more than three quarters the height of Table Mountain underground.

Jock: ‘Yes, very welcome to pump station, this is our pump station here, our heart of the mine.’

Jock Botha explains how ten giant pumps drive the water to surface up four massive pipes. He points out rust on the pipes.

Jock Botha: ‘You can see there is some of the rust that’s been accumulated through the time.’
Rust caused by acid contamination in the water 3 Shaft pumps up. 3 Shaft is in trouble, a victim of the management chaos at Grootvlei where, as Carte Blanche showed last week, most workers have been on strike since mid-March over unpaid salaries and miserable living conditions.

[Carte Blanche 2 May 2010] Man 2 (Striking miner): ‘Two months… two months, no pay!’

Reports say Grootvlei is falling apart because of top-level mismanagement and corruption in Aurora Empowerment Systems, the company in charge of the mine since October last year. Aurora’s directors include Zondwa Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Khulubuse Zuma, the President’s nephew, and Michael Hulley, the President’s lawyer. Environmentalists are extremely worried about reports of pollution coming from Grootvlei. Mariette Liefferink, CEO of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, is deeply involved in mine pollution issues.

Mariette Liefferink (CEO: Federation for a Sustainable Environment): ‘You must remember that within the Blasbokspruit we also have the Ramsar site, the Marievale Bird Sanctuary, and unless drastic measures are taken then this will be lost for future generations.’

Stan Madden used to work for a local gold mine and is the ‘father’ of Marievale

Stan Madden (Founder: Marievale Bird Sanctuary): ‘My initial visit to this area was in the 1940s, and one of the first things I saw was this beautiful spruit that meandered through this highland. I’d never seen this crystal clear water. It really began an obsession then which hasn’t left me.’

The nearby town of Springs got its name from the many freshwater springs early settlers found here; good for farming, not so good for mining. Jude Cobbing, a geo-hydrogeologist, explains:

Jude Cobbing (Hydrogeologist): ‘The natural groundwater levels are often just a few tens of metres below ground level, and so as soon as you start mining below the water table – below the level of the groundwater – water fills up your mine, so you’ve got to continually pump these mines to keep them dry so you can mine.’

Gold mining began on the East Rand in the late 1800s. At the industry’s peak in the 1950s there were 24 active mines in the so-called Eastern Basin.

Jude: ‘Those areas where the rocks are sufficiently thick and the gold content sufficiently high to mine, we call them ‘basins’, mining basins, and they cover huge areas.’

There are four major mining basins around Johannesburg. With the decline in gold reserves, many East Rand mines have closed in recent decades. Grootvlei’s 3 Shaft is the last pump station left in the entire Eastern Basin. In the early days of mining, the water pumped up was pure – nowadays, it’s contaminated.

Jude: ‘Essentially the gold bearing rocks, the Witwatersrand rocks, are rich in sulphide minerals, and when those minerals come into contact with water and oxygen they dissolve to produce a lot of acidity so the water becomes very acidic and that acidic water in turn can dissolve more minerals in the rock, some of which can be harmful to people’s health.’

Old, flooded mine tunnels are ideal places for these acid-producing chemical reactions to start. With so many abandoned mines in the Eastern Basin, its deep underground water has become contaminated with iron, sulphur compounds, manganese, and other toxins, including uranium. 3 Shaft pumps about 40 Olympic swimming pools-full of this every day – and Grootvlei is legally obliged to partially clean it before it enters the Blesbokspruit.

Jock: ‘The problem is the iron in the water that needs to be taken out.’

3 Shaft has a purification plant to do this. It can add lime to the mine water to make it less acidic. The water can be aerated and passed through settling tanks where, with the right treatment chemicals, the contaminants settle out as a reddish brown sludge. When Carte Blanche first visited 3 Shaft on the 16th of March the treatment plant seemed to be working well. But on subsequent visits, things didn’t look so good. Rumours circulated that mine water was often going right through the plant without being cleaned because top management was not buying the chemicals. Government was not stepping in because of Aurora’s political connections.

Jock: ‘Well, unfortunately I wouldn’t really like to comment on that but yes it was very very difficult to get water treatment, especially lime.’

Aurora’s top brass admitted not treating the water for two days due to strikers supposedly blocking the lime truck. Buta Carte Blanche cameraman was on the mine for most of the strike, and can confirm this never happened. We asked Aurora’s spokesperson, commercial director Thulane Ngubane, about the mine’s pollution.

Thulani Ngubane (Commercial Director: Aurora Empowerment Systems): ‘It comes to me as a shock that there are such allegations. We are spending money buying all the chemicals, iron, and we also we’ve been buying a um, the uh, the uh, what is the other chemical…?’

Ngubane seemed confused. Iron is not a water treatment chemical, but is the main pollutant that needs to be removed from the mine water.

Thulani: ‘…but the chemicals, the water is being treated. The Blue Scorpions obviously they’ve been out there, even they could even go there tomorrow, they will come back to you smiling and say, ‘Aurora board or Aurora Empowerment Systems, have done the best-ever project on that water.”

Carte Blanche went out to Grootvlei the next day to see if visitors would in fact find the water being cleaned. We were stopped from entering after Thulani Ngubane told security we could only photograph the treatment plant from outside. This made us suspicious. A suspense-filled walk around the back of the plant revealed millions of litres of sulphurous, stinking, untreated mine water pouring out towards the Blesbokspruit. A senior administrator leaked this document to us showing that Grootvlei has in fact failed to consistently treat its water for months: for 14 days in January, 18 days in February, 25 days in March, and for the whole of April no lime was used.

Stan: ‘Government departments are loathe to act. I can see problems that I haven’t seen before. We can’t hear frogs at night anymore, I don’t see the crabs that I’ve seen before. We may not have a wetland left here in another couple of year’s time.’

And a bigger crisis is looming. Senior mine employees told us off-camera that 3 Shaft’s system is at imminent risk of breakdown because staff are not paid and the pipes bringing water up the shaft under extreme pressure are corroding rapidly. They’re developing cracks and holes almost on a daily basis, and sometimes burst explosively.

Jock: ‘Well if your pipes are in a state like it is now, it is always dangerous to go down. We were just fortunate so far that no pipe has burst with somebody in the shaft.’

Unpaid men have to weld breakages closed because there’s no money from Aurora for new pipes.

Jock: ‘You should actually not weld on these pipes, because any time you weld on a pipe you damage your coating, and if you damage your coating you’ve got a place that the water can start eating your pipe.’

A large pipe explosion could stop the last underground pump station in the Eastern Basin. As the underground water rises, the pumps will be destroyed, then mines will flood, and, scientists predict, within five years contaminated water could spill out uncontrollably on the surface. This is already happening in the West Rand after the last underground pump station there was shut down in 1998. Extremely acidic, radioactive water is now polluting aquifers and pouring out of old mine shafts near Randfontein.

Mariette: ‘The Eastern Basin is much larger than the Western Basin so the ramifications for the Eastern Basin will be far larger than what is happening in the Western Basin.’

A report published by the Department of Mineral Resources says that if the Eastern Basin re-waters there is serious risk of land subsidence, earthquakes and sinkholes. Shallow aquifers will fill with toxic water, poisoning boreholes. Several experts refused to comment on these politically sensitive predictions.

Mariette: ‘Many of these scientists and academics are funded by the mines or by government.’

The Department of Water Affairs discovered Grootvlei’s pollution on the 2nd of February, but only served a directive demanding it clean the water on the 28th of April. Aurora still hasn’t complied, despite its directors being liable for up to five years jail under the Water Act. Jock Botha is still, like his men, not receiving a regular salary.

Jock: ‘Are they really worried about us or are they really worried about all the people staying in the area that can sit with contaminated water, that can have effect after effect after effect, that nobody knows how big it can really be, but I can just imagine by myself that this could be a disaster.’

Source: Carte Blanche 10 May 2010, Aurora II

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