Hundreds of thousands use Wonderfonteinspruit catchment area tainted by mining waste
Dishea Nephtaly sits on the river bank and waits patiently for the fish to bite. He knows it could take hours, but the prize is worth it.
For the Khutsong resident, the fishing is often good at Padda Dam. When it is, he sells his catch to local residents or puts it on the dinner table.
“I’ve been fishing here for 10 years…we eat the fish and there’s no problem”, he says. “Look, we can tell the water isn’t very clean because of all the mining around here. The fish still taste good.”
But less than a kilometre away, the warnings are clear: a municipal sign advises residents not to drink or cook from the tainted Wonderfonteinspruit because the water is dangerous for human consumption. Toxic water pools alongside the signboard, mining salts lace the surrounding soil like confetti.
Watching Nephtaly cast another line into the polluted waters, Mariette Liefferink shudders, horrified. “People should not be eating this fish or selling it to communities”, says the environmental activist. “There could be long-term health impacts from ingesting it. We just don’t know.”
But Nephtaly, like many residents of Khutsong, has never heard that the Padda Dam is one of 36 radiological hot spots in the Wonderfonteinspruit Catchment Area, a collection of sites authorities believe “could be impacted by waterborne radioactive material within the catchment and potentially be a public health hazard”.
Flowing through one of the riches gold mining areas in the world, the wonderfonteinspruit has been the silent, helpless victim of a century of the industry’s pollution.
In 2009, authorities identified 36 hot spots, including dams, wetlands and canals, that contain elevated levels of cadmium, cobalt, copper, zinc, arsenic and uranium, some requiring immediate remediation.
Burt five years later, activists like Liefferink, who heads the Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE), say nothing has been done to remove the potential risks for the more than 400 000 people living in mining towns such as Randfontein, Bekkersdal, Carletonville and Khutsong, whose lives are tied to a 100 km stretch of the water system.
One of the 36 sites, the Lancaster Dam is a category one site, where there is “no reason to delay immediate action”. The once-pristine dam , the source of the Wonderfonteinspruit, remains a poisonous, radioactive mess of acid mine water, devoid of all life.
“Nothing has changed here or at the other sites”, says a disheartened Liefferink, staring at the dead dam. “People are still irrigating their vegetable gardens in the Wonderfonteinspruit. Animals are still watering at areas which were identified as radiological hot spots. Children are still swimming in radiological hot spot areas in Bekkersdal (Donaldson Dam). Affected parties have not been identified and supplied with alternative water resources.”
Several studies by Frank Winde, an uranium expert from the North West University, have worned how poor communities living alongside the Wonderfonteinspruit may be exposed to uranium pollution from historic gold mining waste seeping into the catchment.
This water then finds its way into the food chain of subsistence farmers either through irrigation of gardens or livestock watering.
Farmers like Jacob Sehloho and his girlfriend, Emina. The Rastafarian couple have abandoned their withering farm in the heart of Khutsong’s “danger zone”, alongside the Wonderfonteinspruit, and another radiological hot spot.
“Since we heard about this water pollution we are too scared to eat our vegetables”, says Sehloho. “A lot of people use this water and they have skin problems, and cramps. Sometimes, even cancer. When you do your laundry, there are these mining salts in your clothes. We don’t know if they are radioactive.”
He points to 78-year old Albert Nyambanga, happily watering his onions directly from water sourced from the Wonderfonteinspruit. Like many local farmers, he has diverted the Wonderfonteinspruit – also tainted by sewage – to directly feed his vegetable patch. “We have run workshops with the community but there is no alternative, so people continue to use the water. People are just trying to survive.”
In December, the Saturday Star revealed how David Hamman of the North West University’s Potchefstroom campus detected significant levels of radioactive uranium and heavy metals in soil, water and cattle tissue samples in his study to gauge the extent of mining-related pollution in the Wonderfonteinspruit.
The uranium concentration was 375.78 times higher in the soil samples, and for the cattle samples, 126.75 times higher in the liver, 4 350 times higher in the kidney, 47.75 times higher in the spleen, 31.6 times higher in the muscle tissue, 60 times higher in the bone and 129 times higher in the hair than his control group, drawn from the Mooi River.
Since the alarm was raised in the 1960s, there have been hundreds of studies to determine the gravity of water pollution in the Wonderfonteinspruit. If stacked, those reports will reportedly tower 5m, with the bibliography alone reaching more than 120 pages.
Heavy metal concentrations are higher in the upper reaches of the river near Krugersdorp, Randfontein and Kagiso, because a large percentage of the pollutants sink into the sediments as the water flows downstream.
“this means that under normal circumstances water tests in lower areas do not cause great concern, and users may feel that they are not under threat from heavy metal contaminants”, Liefferink, the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, explains.
If the sediments are in any way disturbed the uranium can easily be dislodge from the sediments and reabsorbed into the water column.
In 2004, a water Commission report showed the sediment of the system contained elevated levels of heavy metals and uranium and its authors, who included Winde, recommended the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) take regulatory decisions. Instead the regulator disclaimed the findings of this report, commissioning a team of German physicists who produced the restricted Brenk Report.
Its authors found that the more than 400 000 living in the Wonderfonteinspruit were seriously contaminated by dangerously high levels of radioactive radium pollutants, including lead and polonium.
Their study, which the NNR reportedly tried to keep under wraps, warned there was no natural water in the entire area deemed safe for humans, animals and plants.
A later study by the NNR would find some vegetable produce contaminated in the area. By April 2009, the NNR and the Department of Water Affairs released a report, the Wonderfonteinspruit Catchment Area: remediation Action Plan, “to determine a logical process to start the clean-up of the Wonderfonteinspruit catchment”. The two state agencies had commissioned a radioactive contamination specialist task team, including Winde, to conduct the report.
“The overriding intention is to start with the clean-up action as soon as possible, and not to wait until everything is known”, says the report. A steering committee, comprised by the NNR, the department, the Chamber of Mines and the FSE, among others, was meant to drive the remediation process.
But until June it has not met for three years.
Stephinah Mudau, the head of the environmental department at the Chamber of Mines, says the committee’s work is being revived.
Liefferink blames the NNR, which she says is legislatively mandated to deal with radiological waste. She points to its response to a civil society question posed in 2012 whereby the NNR stated the remediation action plain is “not a NNR document,” but a “Water Affairs document”.
“The NNR and the mining industry (do) not regard this document as a high-confidence study and therefore cannot respond to any of its contents,” reads its response.
This week the regulator stated: “The NNR is not aware of any confirmed over-exposure to members of the public relating to the WCA (workmen’s compensation) issues raised. With the data available the NNR can confirm that the sources of contamination are diffuse in nature and that members of the public are not in any imminent danger.”
The department did not respond to the Saturday Star.
Winde, whose studies have found that uranium levels in the water resources of the whole catchment have increased since 1997 because of the decant of acid mine drainage on the West Rand, says remediating certain contaminated sites may not be the answer.
In many cases, he believes, short-term intervention measures like restricting access to polluted water will be more appropriate than attempting to remediate contaminated sites.
From his vegetable farm in Kagiso, Patrick Molefe* has watched the surrounding mine dumps obscure more of the barren skyline.
“The water looks clear, and clean, but we know we can’t drink it. We’re too afraid”, says the elderly farmer.
He and his fellow farmers have been waiting for a borehole to be installed since 2010. “Until we get it, we have to use the wetland. Who else must the plants grow?”
As he starts his 2 km journey home, he proudly shows off his wheelbarrow full of mielies.
“I’ve harvested three bags this week. I won’t have to buy pap for three months.” He smiles, then shrugs. “A man has to eat.”
*Not his real name.