Radioactive spillages condemn farmland

In the wasteland that is Johan Kondos’s farm, a lush green field brings hope.

“This is what a farm is supposed to look like,” he says, gesturing proudly to his prized lucerne crop, seemingly untainted by the surrounding mining pollution.

This lone field, and a few beloved cattle, is all Kondos has left of his farm in Hartbeesfontein in the North West.

Like many of his neighbours, he blames surrounding mining operations for contaminating his farm, situated about 5km from the Vaal River.

“Some of the pollution is historic but some of it is so recent, it’s still wet,” he explains.

“I’ve had calves born with two heads on my farm. At one time I was having 70 percent abortions and very high mortality with my animals. They drank from the Koekemoerspruit and ate the lucerne I produced.

“The radiation goes into the ground, you get values in your corn and lucerne. If I had to sell that to my suppliers, I’d be out of business. I had 1 000 head of cattle on this farm, but I had to take them to another farm.”

Kondos, a metallurgist, worries about the impact of ongoing mining spillages on the Koekemoerspruit, already contaminated with elevated levels of radioactive uranium and sulphates from slimes dams, and which flows directly into the Vaal, nearby.

“Where the Koekemoerspruit flows into the Vaal is about 1km from the Midvaal waterworks, which supplies the whole of the Kosh area (Klerksdorp, Orkney, Stilfontein, Hartbeesfontein) with drinking water. That means the whole of the Kosh area is drinking polluted water.”

He shows a wetland, its grass coated a sulphuric white from recent spillages. “The levels of uranium are 10 times higher than they should be in this wetland alone, which is part of the Koekemoerspruit. You’re not even talking about the acidity, cyanide and arsenic in the water. You’re just talking about the nuclear pollution.”

He blames the recent toxic and radioactive spillages on Mine Waste Solutions, a subsidiary of Canadian First Uranium, which is reprocessing mining waste from 15 old slimes dams – some of which are located on his expansive farm – in the Klerksdorp area.

As part of this, the company is also constructing a controversial central tailings storage facility, or superdump, about 2km from the Vaal River, touting it as a model rehabilitation plan, where the mining waste from the 15 tailings dams is piped. Superdumps are huge dams that store toxic waste form the smaller, historical dumps that are reprocessed for gold and uranium.

In July, the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) shut down Mine Waste Solutions’ operations after its inspection revealed spillages and leakages of tailings materials along the company’s extensive pipeline and on the properties of farmers like Kondos.

But a week later, Mine Waste Solutions was back on line, stating it said it had been given conditional approval to restart operations provided it follow an “enhanced pipeline maintenance programme” and submit monthly reports.

But farmers say the spillages continue. “I can almost give you the date when the next spill will happen,” remarks Flip Jooste, a farmer. “Every day I’m on this road checking where the new spillages are because they (Mine Waste Solutions) don’t care.”

As part of a servitude agreement, Jooste has allowed the company to operate a dam on his farm, and run its massive pipelines across it.

But following spillages since March, his water tests have revealed high levels of uranium and sulphates.

“I sold all my cattle because there is no use putting them back in the field after all this pollution and spillages,” he says, disconsolately.

“There are 400 people who live on my land, like pensioners and people who used to work on the mines, who are also being exposed to this pollution.”

The Blue Scorpions, the enforcement arm of the national Department of Water Affairs, this week conducted a “closed audit” on Mine Waste Solution’s operations in the area.

The head of the unit, Nigel Adams, told the Saturday Star it had received numerous complaints about pollution and “it’s very worrying”.

“We’re taking water samples in the manner of prosecuting samples. That’s not to say we’re going to lay criminal charges, but we need to follow certain procedures.

“Part of my team are specialists in the engineering field who are looking at the pumps and pipeline and the design. Part of the audit is to determine whether the cause (of pollution) is pure negligence, an act of God, or improper planning.”

Mariette Liefferink, of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, which is representing landowners and farmers in the area, predicts the toxic spills will continue because the company’s pipelines are structurally defective and were “erected in haste”.

Her federation has appealed the NNR’s decision to suspend the directive. “We have not been given reasons why they did this. You cannot just greenwash after there has been a public outcry.”

Liefferink believes the superdump will cause more pollution, degradation and damage to the Vaal River.

“This is an unspoilt area,” says local conservationist Steve Hill. “The Vaal is a national asset. When the river is dead, we can’t get it back.”

MWS says no defects found in pipelines

In its response, Mine Waste Solutions (MWS) stated that “when spillages happen, they are cleaned up” and that the company was taking the blame for spillages caused by other mining operations in the area.

“Mr (Flip) Jooste has a somewhat flexible approach to the truth when it suits him.

“Mr Jooste’s actions should perhaps be viewed in the light of his current attempt to claim over R600 000 from MWS for ‘farming losses’,” it said.

The company said it did not discharge into the Koekemoerspruit.

“It is likely the spillages on Mr Kondos’ farm are from three dams belonging to Buffelsfontein Gold Mine. Those sections of the pipeline belonging to MWS that do traverse the Koekemoerspruit are buried and encased in concrete, as per the specifications of the Department of Water Affairs.

“The MWS pipeline integrity is tested and independently signed off by the contractors responsible for the installation of the pipeline on the newly-constructed sections of the pipeline…

“Thus far, no structural defects have been noted,” it said. – Saturday Star

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