The short-term plan to treat acid mine drainage could be expanded to include the removal of sulphate salts, because dangerously high levels of the chemical could be released into rivers.
The department of water affairs’s plan is to neutralise water by adding lime and removing heavy metals. It acknowledges that sulphate salts need to be removed, but the process, desalination, is expensive and not economically feasible at present.
Mariette Liefferink, chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, said if the sulphates were left in the water, the levels would be dangerous — 2 500mg a litre. Healthy levels were said to be 600mg a litre.
The department has admitted that if the levels continue to rise the Vaal River system will be so polluted that more water will have to be released from the Vaal Dam to dilute it.
Liefferink said she believed that this would create a water shortage by 2014.
A recent gathering of all the stakeholders, organised by the Human Rights Commission, led to the department agreeing with the commission’s request for the desalination to be brought forward, she said.
Marius Keet, senior manager of water quality in the department, said the commission’s recommendation “has to be considered” and will be taken in April to the inter-ministerial committee dealing with acid mine drainage. He said that although the department’s long-term plan envisaged a desalination plant in operation within two years, the process could be speeded up. But it would take at least a year and the tricky part was to “link the short-term and long-term plans” and let them overlap so that treasury could fund both.
An emergency solution is to expand mining company Uranium One’s water treatment plant outside Randfontein. Although it appears to be dilapidated, with metal rusting and salt stalactites hanging from walkways, it treats 12 000 cubic metres a day, which could be increased to 30 000.
For people living on the West Rand the need for an urgent solution is clear.
Sitting under a leafy blue gum tree, Themba Malopo looked exhausted. Even scooping atchaar on his half-loaf of white bread was laborious. “It is a struggle here. Everything is a struggle. I work at a garage but I must go to the hospital many times and I lose money.”
He said his children stay with their grandmother but she struggles on her pension. “Life here is too hard.”
Malopo lives in Tudor Shaft, a community of haphazard, dilapidated corrugated iron houses next to a tar road outside Krugersdorp. There are puddles of muddy water and rebellious tufts of grass in the area and layers of rust on the towering electricity pylons. In the centre of the community is an old mine tailings dam. A cluster of yellow cranes on the horizon is the only break from the towering dumps that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Acid mine drainage
This area is ground zero for acid mine drainage. Thandeka Tshipishi, a local doctor, said people got sick because of the mines and poisoned water. “I have so many patients, especially in August when the wind blows off the mines.
“This has always been a problem. My father tells me when he was young they had the same problems. Only the water is something new.”
It is ironic how water and mining are reflected in the place names. Many are named after the mines, whereas others, such as the Witwatersrand, recall the pristine water that settlers found in the area.
The World Health Organisation has described acid mine drainage as the worst side-effect of mining. The chemicals produced in the cocktail are all dangerous in their own right: arsenic, antimony, barium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, fluoride, lead, mercury, nickel, nitrate, selenium, sulphate, uranium and radon.
Although the treasury has allocated R433-million for the rehabilitation of acid mine drainage, funds are still scarce. The Trans-Caledon tunnel authority, which is tasked with fixing the problem, says it needs at least R900-million a year for capital expenditure and R285-million for operational costs.
Speaking this week at the World Water Forum in Marseille, France, Edna Molewa, minister of environmental affairs, said public-private partnerships were being considered to bridge the gap.