CHANTAL Whiller and her husband did their homework before they moved their family to an upmarket country estate at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.
Whiller’s husband, who worked on the mines in Welkom, had heard about the toxic and potentially radioactive acid mine drainage (AMD) seeping into the Cradle from the Witwatersrand’s abandoned goldfields.
“He took satellite photos and had our water tested,” remembers Whiller. “Everything was fine – that’s why we bought here.”
And back then, in 2009, the water tasted good. So good, in fact, that when Whiller showered, the water felt like cream on her skin. “The water was wonderful. Your skin would be so soft.”
But then things started to go wrong. A dry stream at the entrance to the estate suddenly became a torrent of poisoned water decanting from an old mine shaft in Krugersdorp. Everything died.
“It was so pretty at first and then the water became a toxic yellow. Everything was dead. All the trees died. It was very bad for two years.
“It was a wasteland. You didn’t want to invite people here because it was so shabby.
I remember we had two of my friend’s kids over and they walked with our kids to the spruit, which was in flood. Our kids swam and they didn’t get sick. But these two kids got so ill they were sick for two months.”
The Whillers family is one of more than 11 000 who rely on the Zwartkrans Compartment, a dolomitic aquifer that hosts the Cradle of Humankind.
From 2002, millions of litres of highly corrosive and potentially radioactive acid mine water, tainted with dangerous heavy metals and high levels of sulphates, had poured out from abandoned mine shafts in Krugersdorp and flowed through the Krugersdorp Game Reserve to the Cradle.
Authorities have now stopped that decant and partially treated the water, but high levels of salts remain, rendering the water unfit for consumption.
“Now this toxic water is coming in all the time. It’s got to the point where you actually have to drive a 4X4 to get to your home.”
And then there is what happens to the appliances. “The kettles, the irons that pack up, and the geysers that don’t last a year. It’s at the point now where you have to clean your kettle every single day. It builds up with these thick yellow minerals. Your pipes, your geyser, everything corrodes because of the AMD.”
The government’s feasibility study implementation strategy for its long-term solution to tackle the AMD associated with the East, central and West Rand underground mining basins, dated July this year, warns how it is in the Zwartkrans dolomitic compartment where “severe pollution is taking place”.
Farmers here use more than 3 million cubic metres of water a year. But the report warns that now the water level in the mine voids has been lowered, many of the springs will dry up and there’s a high risk of instability because of the decanting and pumping of AMD from the mining voids.
Environmental activist Mariette Liefferink said the compartment had “sulphate concentrations higher than what would be expected from a dolomitic aquifer”.
The World Health Organisation’s standard for drinking water is 200mg to a litre. At more than 500mg/l, non-adaptive diarrhoea sets in. The sulphate concentrations in the Whillers’ borehole exceeds guidelines.
“We had a patch recently where we were all really struggling with diarrhoea for about two months. But our bodies have obviously adjusted now.
“The water tastes bad. And now you have to put cream on all the time – you always have rashes. Your skin flares up.”
Still, even with the cost of installing expensive filter systems and the worry over water, Whiller couldn’t live anywhere else.
She looks to the expanse of the estate and the scenic view that stretches beyond it.
“We don’t want to leave – it’s the lifestyle we love. I can breathe.