Living in the shadow of the old mine dumps, the dust is forever unsettling
Bridget Mathebula is smiling – there’s hardly a breath of wind in the air. Today is a good day to be a farmer in Snake Park.
No wind means no toxic dust swirling off the ghostly mine dump that looms like a sore over the improvised vegetable farm she runs with her elderly father in the informal settlement.
Proudly, she shows off the mealies, spinach and cabbages sprouting from the tainted earth, contaminated by potentially dangerous mine tailings that contain high levels of uranium and radionuclides from decades of mining activity.
“The mealies are covered with many layers, so I don’t think they can make us sick”, she insists. “We wash the cabbages and spinach very well with warm water before we cook them”
But Mathebula fears enough to keep her 2 year old son, Lwandle, at home as the dust storms rage across Snake Park and the family’s farm from the unrehabilitated dump. Her father, Thomas, covers his mouth with a wet cloth and his eyes with glasses as he farms.
What matters more, says Mathebula, is that the family always has something to eat now.
“We may live in a shack, but because we have food, we are not poor. When there’s no meat, there’s always vegetables to eat and if there are spares, we sell them to the community, R3 for 10 mealies.”
“It is only when one of them gets sick that they will know how bad this mining waste is for them”, offers a scrawny Israel Mosala, an environmental activist who educates Sowetans about the hazards of mining waste.
“But I can’t blame them for their ignorance. People know these mine dumps make them sick, but they are more concerned about getting that slice of bread, about their survival.”
Mosala grew up in nearby Meadowlands, in the shadow of mine dumps, and for him, battling pollution is a fight that never ends. He has a new battle on his hands: Ergo Mining – the operating company for DRD Gold – has applied for a mining rights application to remine the Soweto cluster of mine dumps in Roodepoort. It wants to break down the old dumps that encircle Soweto, to scour them for precious gold, silver, nickel and uranium.
As much as he would like to see the dumps that blight Soweto disappear, Mosala worries about reprocessing them. “It could go from bad to worse’, says Mosala, a volunteer at Earthlife Africa Joburg, clad in a T-shirt that declares “no to nukes”.
“We’re already covered in mine dust that makes people sick and destroys ecosystems. They (Ergo) have told us they will be using a wet system to make sure the dump stays wet and there is no dust fallout. All I know is when there is the wind, the dust will blow into our houses.
“This re-mining will cause extensive damage to an already damaged environment”, he believes. “There will be more dust for many years, more water pollution and more noise from their operations.
In Soweto, some mine dumps are rehabilitated and covered with a thin layer of vegetation – many others are left barren wastelands behind severe dust storms.
A 2010 study that measured dust exposure in Soweto found that in its north-eastern reaches, residents faced the equivalent of 106 eight-hour shifts a year in a workplace that would expose them to easily inhalable hyperfine dust, but without protective gear stipulated on mines.
Traditionally, concludes the study, mine dumps were “regarded as a nuisance”, but have now become “recognised potential health hazards”.
Most residents are in the dark about the Ergo application, claims Mosala, who questions the timing and location of a community meeting held by Ergo last week. Only a handful of residents turned up at the meeting held by Digby Wells, which is conducting Ergo’s environmental impact assessment.
“They had their meeting at the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens in Roodepoort in the middle of the work day. How could most people get there from Soweto? We don’t have transport money.
“These companies promise they will have all these specialist studies into air quality, wetlands, social impacts and fauna and flora, but they don’t mean anything. The environment is still left polluted when they leave.”
To highlight this, Mosala points to a stream of rust-coloured toxic acid mine drainage (AMD), flowing unhindered through a field in Meadowlands, where it ultimately will join the blighted Klip River. AMD refers to the seepage of polluted water, loaded with heavy metals, sulphates and potentially radioactive, pouring from old mining areas.
“This has been here since I was a young man. I’m in my fifties now and it’s still here. Children swim here, livestock drink this water – we eat that meat – and people use it for religious ceremonies, Now, if the re-mine, this AMD could worsen.”
Mosala is frustrated. He has brought professors, academics and government officials to this poisoned stream and has attended countless seminars and think-tanks on mining waste in recent years. “They all jot down their notes, but nothing changes. It’s devastating.”
Environmental lobby groups like the Federation for a Sustainable Environment believe Ergo’s application should only be approved if the entire residue deposits and the remaining footprints are removed.
“If this is not the case, rather than consolidating contaminated sites, the reprocessing activities could result in the creation of two contaminated sites, where one previously existed.
“The remining of the uraniferous Soweto cluster can contaminate air, water and soil”, it points out. “The chemical toxicity of the metal constitutes the primary environmental health hazard, with the radioactivity of uranium a secondary concern. The reclamation process could exacerbate AMD pollution through the mobilisation of metals and sand dump materials in the presence of air and water.”
Tiny Dlamini, a resident of Snake Park, gestures to her swollen, red eyes. “This is what this mine dump does to me. But it’s worse for others – people die here because of this dust, it causes TB and asthma.
“Come here in August, you won’t even be able to see someone across the road. That’s how bad it is.”
‘Reclamation is rehabilitation’
The reclamation of Soweto’s mine dumps is a form of rehabilitation, insists Ergo, the operating company for DRD Gold.“It should also be noted that reclamation of the dumps is itself a form of rehabilitation, as by re-mining them, they – and any associated problems – are removed completely”, spokeswoman Leigh King said. There was no valid mining or exploration rights over the dumps in the Soweto cluster. “And neither DRD, nor Ergo, its operating company, have any responsibility for these dumps at this time”, she said.
“The Ergo operational team works continuously to manage and contain dust, water and effluent at its operations, and to ensure that reclamation causes no undue nuisance to the various stakeholders.”
The company’s responsibility would only begin when its mining right application to reclaim the dumps had been approved by the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR).
“The DMR will only approve the application if it is satisfied with the environmental management programme that is submitted.”
But the Federation for a Sustainable Environment points out that DRD Gold has a “historical record of unsustainable mining.” – Sheree Bega
Report exposes mining’s high cost
Extractive industries in oil, gas and mining have long been recognised as some of the most damaging to the environment, health and livelihoods, according to medical journal, the Lancet.
Its report published last week, notes how mining causes high occupational mortality.
“Accidental poisonings and exposure to toxins across industries kill 355 000 people annually with developing countries accounting for two-third of exposure-associated deaths’, said the report.
It also notes: “The costs of extractive industry activity are not borne only by workers, but communities and environments.
“In the case of mining, toxic contaminants such as arsenic, heavy metals, acids and alkalis can be discarded into the environment, ending up in water, soil and the food chain.
“Through industrial activities in agriculture and manufacturing, harmful pollutants can bereleased directly into the environment.”
Next month, the People’s Health Movement will discuss its implications for gold-mining communities at a Joburg meeting.
The report states: ‘Although the health sector has a crucial role in addressing inequalities, its efforts come into conflict with powerful global actors in pursuit of other interests such as protection of national security, safeguarding of sovereignty or economic goals”. Sheree Bega.
CURRENT RE-MINING ACTIVITIES
The following photographs were taken of Mintails’, AngloGold Ashanti’s Mine Waste Solutions’ operations and DRD Golds’ Blyvooruitzicht Mine’s reclamation activities by the FSE’s affiliates and members