Rising water, rising fear: SA’s mining legacy

Environmental activist Mariette Liefferink’s four-inch crimson heels still sport their Woolworths sticker as they puncture the sulphuric crust lining Robinson Lake, situated in the Western Basin of the Witwatersrand.

The water is quiet, smells slightly of vinegar and laps gently against a shore devoid of any life save for a few, lone reeds. Behind the lake is a large, naked yellow mountain of mine waste adorned with a few small green nets meant to stop the dust from blowing in an incessant wind.

Liefferink talks sweetly over her asthma. “This lake has a pH of two,” she said. “It’s pure acid, coming from flooding mine operations just up the road. There are no life forms here. It’s completely dead.”

This is acid mine drainage, or AMD, a problem so complex, overwhelming and shrouded in economic, political and scientific machinations that it has become a terrifying yet poorly understood criminal.

South Africans are fearful that Johannesburg may soon be at the mercy of acid water, with whisperings of the CBD crumbling as basements flood and buildings corrode. The government is said to be too slow, gutless and corrupt to enforce necessary action, the mining companies too heartless and unwilling to pay, the community and environmental activists too alarmist and the solutions too expensive or ineffective.

In reality, these statements represent a wide variety of fact and fiction. AMD involves an elusive and complicated mass of overlapping, incorrect or incomplete data, personal politicking marked by oft-interchanging vendettas and alliances and an environment pockmarked with racial prejudices, the unpredictable demands of the international market, foreign exploitation, and a broken political, legal and managerial landscape fuelled by apartheid and encouraged under the democratic government.

This is not just about water. And nothing is as it seems.

What is AMD?

Acid mine drainage is a side effect of mining operations the world over. It occurs through natural runoff after rains flush through a mine dump; from mine companies disposing of the water used in their operations; or from old, disused mine shafts filling up with water, eventually decanting, or flooding, above ground.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency considers AMD to be one of the world’s biggest environmental threats, second only to climate change.

AMD is high in sulphates (salts) and heavy metals and bears a low pH, the marker of acidity.

This toxic mix means that the water cannot be used for human or animal consumption, because exposure to uranium and other heavy metals can result in toxic and radioactive effects such as cancers, mental disorders, birth defects and kidney failure.

AMD also has a negative impact on the environment, severely affecting the ability of plants to grow and animals to thrive.

The Witwatersrand, home to the world’s largest deposit of gold and host to mining operations for more than 120 years, saw its first decant when the Western Basin overflowed with acid water in 2002, with acidic water rushing through a Rand Uranium operation and into Robinson Lake. Because of its high uranium content the lake has been designated a hazardous radiation site by the National Nuclear Regulator.

AMD is soon expected to decant in the province’s Central and Eastern Basins and can be found already in Mpumalanga, North West, KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State. And it’s not going away anytime soon. Because of the large number of mine dumps and huge, empty and largely uncared for voids, or empty underground basins, experts predict that today’s mine waste could create AMD for hundreds to thousands of years to come.

On top of that, South Africa’s unique geology actually encourages the country’s extensive AMD problem. The Witwatersrand was named for its luscious, flowing white waters. But its underground basins were drained of water through pumping, a process termed “dewatering”, so that gold deposits could be extracted from ever-greater depths. This process resulted in the creation of massive voids.

But as the rand’s deposits became scarcer, companies ceased pumping activities and closed up shop. The now-empty basins began filling with water, collecting along the way salts, iron pyrite – also known as Fool’s Gold, which, when oxidised, becomes acidic — and heavy metals. Now those fountains are producing water again, said Liefferink. But this time it won’t be white, clean water, but AMD that’s coming above ground.

What’s at risk?

With the Western Basin still decanting at a rate of between 15-million and 30-million litres a day and 56-million litres during heavy rains, the Central Basin, on which Johannesburg lies, is predicted to produce 60-million litres a day within a matter of months. This is equivalent to water from 24 Olympic pools hitting the city’s streets daily.

In July the department of water affairs stated that potential decant within the Johannesburg area could take place within 18 months, or by early 2012. The water is now estimated to be 530m below the surface and rising at a rate of between 0.3m and 0.9m a day. This rate could increase with heavy summer rains.

Large buildings in the CBD, such as Standard Bank and Absa, have been listed by activists and scientists as potential targets and Gold Reef City is expected to be one of the first major attractions to end up under water.

Standard Bank and Absa have commissioned studies to look at potential effects but the results have not been publicly released. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) said Gauteng has the potential to create 350-million litres a day of AMD decant by 2014, the equivalent of 140 Olympic swimming pools.

The department of water affairs suggested building a pumping station to keep the decant at bay, but work on this has yet to begin.

In late October farmers warned that the water could affect exports to European markets, with Spar and Pick n Pay expressing concern over the safety of their produce.

The Cradle of Humankind, a world heritage site, is a potential target, with the Western Basin decant making its way through the Krugersdorp Nature Reserve’s hippo pool and into the Cradle area. Garfield Krige, a mine consultant who predicted the 2002 decant, said that “for every megalitre of mine water, about 300 litres of void is created. Sooner or later we’re going to get major collapses in the Cradle.”

On the record for decades

Communities, scientists, mining companies and government have known about the AMD threat for decades.

Before mines were given permission by government to dewater their voids in the 1960s, a 1957 document presented by the Chamber of Mines to the CSIR noted potential problems with what it termed “re-watering”, or decant, after mines closed, with both processes potentially and actually producing sinkholes, increasing seismic activity and causing water and air quality to deteriorate.

As Witwatersrand gold operations began to close en masse in the 1990s, studies were done to ascertain the potential impact of ceased pumping. In 1996 Krige was involved in producing what became known as the Strategic Water Management Plan, or the Swamp report, which predicted within a month of accuracy that AMD would make its way to the Western Basin surface in 2002.

“The [department of water affairs] was completely aware that the voids would start filling up,” said Krige. “The fact that the department [did not] take proper decisions over that period, from 1996 to now … [gave] all the mines time to get rid of their liability … The department should have said 2002 is the deadline. [Instead], in 2002, the water started to decant and it caught everybody off guard, even though everybody knew about the whole thing. It’s now 2010 and nothing has been done.”

Internal government discussions have noted concern over Central Basin decant for years.

A 2009 water affairs department memo considered AMD “the single biggest environmental threat that this Government and country will be faced within the immediate future if the necessary managerial decisions are not taken timeously … The rise in the water table will have catastrophic consequences if not dealt with timeously.”

Who’s responsible?

While AMD has been known about for decades, little money has been made available either by government or industry to remedy decant and mitigate disaster.

Issues surrounding liability are central to who will pay, with many of the major players that operated throughout the Witwatersrand’s 120-year history having packed up and moved on, leaving smaller, less economically successful mines to pump and treat water they did not contaminate.

Nationwide, there are nearly 6 000 ownerless or abandoned mines, according to the department of mineral resources, most of which have not undergone proper remediation.

“Establishing liability is a very complex problem,” said Democratic Alliance MP Gareth Morgan. “The vast majority of mines that are responsible for the decant have ceased to exist or have been abandoned and have not been rehabilitated.”

The 1970 Fanie Botha Accord stated that mines that closed before 1956 are the responsibility of government, with those that closed afterwards to be remediated by the responsible company.

While, in theory, regulatory laws and bodies have been enhanced post-1994, in practice a large brain drain from the public to the private sector enabled by lack of funding and poor management has resulted in these laws rarely being enforced.

Carin Bosman, former director of water resource protection and waste at the water affairs department, said that without adequate funding officials are virtually helpless. “You can issue the directive, but then you don’t have the money to back it up. The costs often trump what is allowed within the budget.”

Infighting between departments and overlapping laws and bodies make it difficult to know in which cases legislation should be instigated and when one rule takes precedence over another.

Said Paul Marden of trade union Solidarity: “The department of mineral resources is involved, [the department of] water affairs is involved, [the department of] tourism is involved and you often find that people sit and pass the buck to each other. Each department wants to maintain its own independence and then you don’t get anything done.”

The task team

The recently appointed inter-ministerial task team on AMD, announced in September by the former water minister, Buyelwa Sonjica, and consisting in part of experts from the CSIR, the Water Research Council, the Council for Geosciences, the Chamber of Mines, the mineral resources and the water affairs departments, may denote a change in governmental behaviour.

In late October government announced that the water affairs department would report the team’s findings to Cabinet by mid-December. While activists and experts are hopeful, the team’s work has been kept from the public domain.

An October 15 report released by the team was not made public. Instead, a four-paragraph press statement was released. When a tender for pumping and treatment options was announced and then immediately revoked, government would not respond to queries from lawyers, activists or treatment companies about why this happened.

Marius Keet, a member of the team and a water affairs official, said that no comment could be made while the group was still in “sensitive” discussions. The DMR also refused comment, after over a month of repeated requests from the Mail & Guardian.

Liefferink contends that the lack of information stemming from the task team is indicative of a general government trend.

While AMD “is not a unique South African problem, what is unique is that it is denied, it is suppressed, it minimised and not addressed,” she said. “We’re living in an autocracy and not a democracy. Government is meant to engage civil society in these discussions and instead we just see suppression of facts.”
Within the world of AMD, nothing is clear, transparent, or easy to understand. Nothing save for the white sulphuric crust lining Robinson Lake and popping up across South Africa’s mining lands.

This project was made possible by funding from the Open Society Foundation for South Africa’s Media Fellowship Programme

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