Pouring poison

People are living in close proximity to dangerous mine dumps. Meanwhile, government is moving slowly to address the problem Nthabiseng, Gloria and Lauren have been living in Tudor Shaft informal settlement near Krugersdorp for “five or six years”, since leaving Polokwane to find work. They have matric, but there are “no jobs, no bursaries, no scholarships”, they say, nursing babies on their hips.

But ask them whether they are aware they are living on ground contaminated by former mining activities, which is highly toxic and radioactive, and their faces close.

They say they don’t know anything about this, though the National Nuclear Regulator has had pamphlets distributed to residents. Asked whether they are coughing or noticing rashes on their skin, they shrug and shake their heads, but “the children cough”, they admit .

Around them, giggling toddlers play on the waste dumps, which are streaked yellow and white with heavy metals deposits.

Activist Mariette Liefferink of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment says people living in informal communities around the Krugersdorp tailings dams are drinking from taps supplied with clean water. But, believing the tainted mine water has medicinal properties, residents are using it to baptise their children and some are drinking it as a tonic.

There are 270 tailings dams (or what most locals call mine dumps) around Johannesburg, mostly with no lining. These contain uranium and iron pyrites. As rainwater runs off the dumps into water courses and wind blows the dust off, the groundwater is tainted with radioactivity and heavy metals. The uranium particles in the air also penetrate the lungs of people living in the area. But as there are no government statistics on the prevalence of cancer in particular areas, it is impossible to estimate the effect on the population.

Companies like DRDGold and Mintails are reprocessing the dumps, since a higher gold price and improved technologies make it profitable to extract the residual gold at grades as low as 1g/t. They use high-pressure hoses and pump the slurry to treatment plants. This is the best way to remove the dumps but the process also contaminates groundwater and leaves behind a “footprint”, or piece of land which still contains heavy metals and elevated levels of radioactivity. The land needs to be reinforced with layers of new topsoil and fertilised, and maintained for many years. It requires money and management, which helps to explain why it is not being done.

Many of the tailings dams, as well as the footprint land sites, are unfenced. One tailings dam near Randfontein is regularly used by quadbikers and also has illegal miners on it.

Another feature on the road into Randfontein is Amberfield, a luxury retirement complex, abandoned and sealed with heavy gates. Amberfield, with full permission from the local city council, was built on a site within the 500m buffer zone of a tailings dam, which is illegal. The property was already a declared radioactive area, and three former mine shafts collapsed to a depth of 30m-40m on the site after the complex was built. After Liefferink reported the transgressions, the property had to be closed and was put up for auction. It can only be used for industrial purposes.

Just as serious as the problem posed by tailings dams above ground is the flow of groundwater into old underground mine workings. It is rising, or decanting, to surface in various places around the Wits Basin at an estimated rate of about 350m litres a day. It is most noticeable near Krugersdorp. It emerges crystal clear, but is loaded with toxic minerals. In contact with oxygen it becomes highly acidic, which is why it is called acid mine drainage.

Only one company on the West Rand, Rand Uranium, is treating some of this effluent, under a directive from the department of water affairs. Other mining companies have denied that they have a responsibility for this legacy issue.

Rand Uranium adds lime, which precipitates the heavy metals out of the solution. That turns the water pea-soup green, and it is then pumped into pits where the heavy metals settle out. The treated water, which still has elevated sulphate levels, is released into the environment.

Liefferink has fought a lengthy campaign to raise awareness of the legacy environmental damage of mining. Her costs are paid partly by Rand Uranium and partly by Gold Fields, in return for some consulting work. She has tried, and failed, to raise funding for the campaign outside the mining industry, even though the contamination of SA’s scarce water resources is an issue that affects everyone, from individuals to businesses.

After many years, the urgency of the problem was acknowledged at government level late last year. Government commissioned a report which has recommended immediate action to stem the flow of water into old mines, pump out tainted water, and pipe it to a treatment plant. R400m has been budgeted for the initial solution and the Trans Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA) has been appointed as the agent to undertake the necessary immediate action.

Department of water affairs (DWA) spokesman Sputnik Ratau says the department is fully aware of warnings by the specially appointed interministerial task committee that polluted mine water will begin emerging in the central basin of Johannesburg by March next year if nothing is done.

The TCTA confirms it has submitted its report to the DWA on the immediate steps that need to be taken to address decant from the Western Basin and how to keep water below critical levels in the Central Basin. It is waiting for feedback.

The long-term solution depends on finding a remedy that will not only neutralise the water but also treat it to remove the salinity. There are numerous technologies available, but a decision has to be made on the most appropriate , and a way found to pay for it. According to the DWA, the possibility of an environmental levy on the mining sector is under investigation.

By mid-2012 pumping and neutralisation of affected water in all three of the Witwatersrand basins (central, western and eastern) should be in place, Ratau says.

But Liefferink, who visits these trouble spots several times a week, says she has seen no signs of action and there has been no consultation with the public.

The issue is a pressing one and should be galvanising three government departments — mineral resources, water affairs and environmental affairs — as well as mining companies into action.

Given the scale of the problem, it may seem strange that the residents of Tudor Shaft informal settlement, who are directly affected, are not showing any anxiety.

They may fear resettlement and they do have more immediate priorities, like food and warmth. But their indifference has been shared by most of Johannesburg’s residents, allowing the issue of serious pollution to be ignored for too long. Now, though, with the waters rising, government and industry have to act — and fast.

Charlotte Matthews

Financial Mail

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