Every day that Patricia Mokoena* goes to work, she prays for rain. Then, at least, the toxic mine dust that she believes is poisoning her and her students won’t be blown around
“We’re affected by this mine dust every day, although it’s much worse on windy days,” says Mokoena, a music teacher at the Crown Mines site of the Central Johannesburg College on the outskirts of Soweto. “Then this whole area is coated in white. But when it rains we’re on holiday. Then we can breathe.”
Mokoena blames the pollution on two DRD Gold mine dumps close to the college, hidden on Shaft Road and overshadowed by FNB Stadium a kilometre away.
The college’s lecturers say their work has become a “death sentence… Before we were moved here, I was healthy,” says Mokoena, her voice hoarse from coughing.
“But now I always have upper respiratory infections. I’ve developed breathing problems and cysts. I’m chronically tired.”
Lecturers say they were “forcefully” moved in 2006 from their Parktown campus to the Crown Mines site.
“We didn’t want to move here because the area is surrounded by mine dumps,” explains another lecturer, who does not want to be named for fear of being victimised by management. “We knew it would be a health hazard.”
Another lecturer interjects, laughing bitterly: “We were dumped here anyway. We call ourselves zombies, because that’s what we feel like.”
Over the years, they claim, senior management has ignored their concerns about dust inhalation. A steady stream of letters directed to the Gauteng education MEC have not elicited a response.
One lecturer says his doctor found mine dust in his ears, the cause of his constant ear infections.
“We’ve been complaining for years,” says Riaan Opperman, an art lecturer, who suffers from chronic sinus infections.
“Our skins are always itching, our eyes burn. We have constant bronchitis, sinusitis, headaches and chronic fatigue. It doesn’t go away.
“Even when the wind is at its worst, college management do not do the right thing and give us dust masks. Our students have to wear bandanas to protect themselves. One of our art students was sick for three days and the clinic found mine dust in his throat. This dust is fine. It doesn’t settle. It’s like having grit in your eyes.”
Opperman says a senior lecturer from the music department resigned due to ill health. “He attached his medical certificate to his resignation letter.”
The staff hope that Mariette Liefferink, the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, will help them in their fight to have the college moved. For more than a decade, she has drawn attention to the plight of “unenriched” mining communities and environmental degradation, particularly on the West Rand.
“The dust blown from mine dumps like these is as fine as talcum powder,” Liefferink told staff at a meeting this week. “We found dust from the West Rand goldfields in Australia. It’s so fine, it disperses over long distances.”
After a century of mining on the Witwatersrand, its harmful legacy endures: dust pollution and contaminated ground and surface water.
“Mine waste is toxic and radioactive. It contains cadmium, cobalt, arsenic, zinc and uranium, which is the main contaminant here and possibly the most deadly heavy metal on Earth. It can cause cancerous and non-cancerous diseases.
“One of its daughter products is radon gas, which… causes lung cancer.”
Liefferink said local studies had shown how, as a consequence of the uraniferous nature of the ore, mining residues often contained elevated concentrations of uranium and radionuclides.
Significant radiation exposure could occur in these surroundings, due to the inhalation of contaminated dust generated by wind erosion from these objects, Liefferink said.
“Most of these tailings dams are not vegetated, and cause significant pollution.”
When microscopic particles of uranium are inhaled, they are carried deep into the lungs and can remain for years, causing chronic radiotoxicity.
Liefferink showed the lecturers a radiometric survey, which identifies areas of the DRD gold mines as having elevated radioactivity.
“A survey for this area will look the same,” she said, because the college is situated barely 100m from the dumps.
“To limit the risk due to external gamma radiation, the Chamber of Mines uses the guideline that each tailings deposit should have a 500m buffer zone surrounding it where no human settlement is allowed.” This guideline is rarely followed.
The staff told her that DRD mining representatives informed them that the dust was merely “nuisance dust”.
She disagreed, urging the lecturers to ask for a radiological map of the area that shows the risk they could be exposed to.
“Evidence must be produced to show you’re not affected, that this is just nuisance dust. We want to see health studies, and radiometric images for the radiation levels in the area and the dust fallout measured, not just at the end of the month, but every day.
“If you measure dust at the end of six to 12 months, you won’t notice the big fallout once a year. That one fallout can cause severe illnesses.”
Lecturers complain student numbers had plunged and they direct their anger at the principal, Motsumi Makhene.
“Management has told us that we’re not suffering alone – that we’re suffering in unison with the rest of the Reef.
“We’ve been told the dust cannot cause health problems. But in the first place, you shouldn’t allow a school to exist in such a place,” comments one lecturer.
For his part, Makhene believes the relocation to Crown Mines is about using skills development to “redress mining legacy challenges” that affect communities like Soweto and Riverlea.
“The respective departments of music and visual arts were moved for the second time in 2006 to fit-for-purpose facilities at Crown Mines – a former teachers’ training college with custom-made facilities for music, arts, science and sport – as a niche campus.”
As has happened with other Central Johannesburg College campuses, there has been no forceful relocation, but rather consultation, he insists.
Staff are aware that the college has investigated the potential risk regarding the site and has confirmed that research done by Wits University in 2000 did not suggest any health risk, he maintains.
Management, says Makhene, is investigating the lecturers’ claims of ill health, but notes “medical reports have not been submitted to our department, nor have we had reports of staff absenteeism as a result of hospitalisation”.
“The only demand by staff members… is to be moved to a town-based location.
“On the question of student numbers dropping, student enrolments for 2008 and 2011 were 360 and 168 respectively as a result of curriculum policy changes.”
But Timothy Raphadu, the SA Democratic Teachers Union college representative, says lecturers and students have suffered for too long. Many lecturers are on three-month contracts, and have been afraid to voice their fears about the contamination.
“These (lecturers) need to be moved. There are labour, health and safety issues and it’s unfair for college management to hold them to ransom.”
A cleaner at the college, who does not want to reveal her identity, is worried about her contact with the mine dust, as her asthma has worsened. “I have developed severe asthma. There is this mine dust everywhere, and sometimes after sweeping it, I can’t breathe.
“I have to use my asthma pump every day. It makes me sick. It’s hell working here, but what can we do? ”
Charles Phahlane, the spokesman for the Gauteng Education Department, did not respond to the Saturday Star’s queries.
But Makhene says the MEC has responded by investigating issues raised “through the (head of department’s) office. A report has been submitted for consideration by her.”
He says college management is investigating “the matter of intimidation”, based on known grievance procedures.
“The college’s labour relations office has not received any grievance in this regard,” says Makhene.
For years, say lecturers like Opperman, both lecturers and students had complained of the “rusty” taste of the college’s drinking water. In the past month, the lecturers have been given bottled water. “But the students still have to drink this water,” he says.
In response, DRD Gold spokesman James Duncan says while slimes (the waste material remaining after gold extraction) are still being deposited, one of the dumps will be decomissioned within three months, the other one in the “foreseeable future”.
“Crown has specific rehabilitation obligations in respect of both dumps. Vegetation of the side slopes and the top surfaces is key, as is the installation of windbreaks. Side slope vegetation and installing windbreaks have been ongoing for some time, but vegetation of the top of the dumps can only be done once they have been decommissioned,” he says.
DRD Gold’s Crown operation management have held discussions with college representatives and the Gauteng Education Department, he says, and they are to meet on Wednesday with an environmental consultant.
* Not their real names