Residents on edge as miner mulls reopening pit
Rakgadi Mashegoane pulls her 8-year-old son, Oratile, close to her and inspects his eyes. They look red and slightly swollen. And his coughing fits are keeping her up at night.
Her other son, who has just turned 18 has been diagnosed with asthma.
She looks worried as she sits on a frayed couch inside her crumbling RDP home, which is buttressed against a towering mine dump in Singobile on the desolate outskirts of Kagiso.
The unemployed Mashegoane blames this unwanted neighbor – and the collection of mine dumps encricling her home – for her family’s illnesses.
“We are inhaling mine dust 24 hours a day, especially when there is wind. We get headaches and our children cough all the time. Our kids are in and out of hospital because of all this dust.”
For the past eight years, she has lived in the shadow of the mine dump, which juts like a barren mountain over the squat homes of Singobile.
Mashegoane, who lost her job at the Post Office earlier this year, wishes she could move. “I have no money, nothing,” she says gesturing to the shacks being erected in her yard to supplement her meager income. “We are stuck here.”
Mning company Mintails plans to re-mine the hazardous mine dump and others it owns that loom Krugersdorp and West Rand. It is breaking down the old dumps, scouring them for valuable gold, silver, nickel and uranium.
But re-mining presents its own problems, warns Mariette Liefferink, the head of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment. “Re-mining can contaminate are, water and soil. When you remove the dump you are also removing the vegetation and the crust, and it liberates the dust. Then people ingest that dust.”
Liefferink says Mintails reclamation of historical tailings dumps is “exacerbating water and airborne pollution, particularly windblown toxic and potentially radioactive dust fallout.”
Mashegoane believes the pollution was worse when Mintails started its open cast mine, Princess Pit, opposite Singobile last year – until violent protests by the community, a court order and intervention by then mineral resources minister Susan Shabangu – temporarily suspended mining operations.
Residents complained blasting had caused cracks in their homes. Mintails attributes the damage to hailstorms and to the company’s alleges pollution and poor consultation.
“They were blasting three times a day – all you heard were explosions,” says Mashegoane, showing a crack that runs across her wall. “It doesnâ€™t help to renovate if they are going to start mining here again. We don’t know,” she shrugs.
In nearby Mindalore, residents complain too complain of blocked sinuses and nosebleeds from mining durst. “There’s so much dust, sometimes it looks like mist where Mintails is operating,” remarks Matilda du Toit, who complains her house is coated in it.
Annemarie le Roux, another resident, worries about the health consequences of mining activities in the white-collar suburb. “We leave for work in others areas, but our kids and grandchildren are in pre-schools and schools inhaling this rubbish all day ling.
“What is the future of the health for these kids?”
Located alongside Singobile, the continued occupation of the informal settlement of Tudor Shaft stands like an indictment to authorities. Build in mining waste and home to several thousand people, it is so toxic and radioactive that several government agencies have recommended the community be urgently relocated.
But nothing happened. Across the road, Mintails’ Princess Pit runs like a scar to Singobile. “These mining companies makes holes in the earth, make us sick, then they leave,” says Lucas Misapitso, a mechanical engineering student, who is trying to raise money to take his fellow Tudor Shaft resident to parliament to talk about the dangers lurking in Tudor Shaft. “This is a human rights violation.”
And always, it’s the poorest of the poor that pay the price, adds Liefferink.
“The challenge for Mintails is to be able to demonstrate that the West Rand is a better place across all three sustainability measures – social, environmental and economic – rather than a worse one because of its activities. The view is that Mintails is not cleaning up the historical and current mess and minimising its mining footprint.”
Communities like those in Singobile, Tudor Shaft and Soul City represent a fraction of the 1.6 million residents living on radioactive mine residue within the Witwatersrand goldfields.
“They are suffering the impact of the legacy of largely unregulated gold mining within the West Rand goldfields and from the accumulated impact of the massive open cast mining operation by companies like Mintails.”
Mmthabo Mphago, who lives opposite Mintails’ Princess Pit, tells of her weekly, and sometimes daily, visits to the clinic. “The dust from all these dumps is too terrible for our children. They are coughing all the time. All the children in Singobile have red eyes and asthma.
Chali Mohale, another resident in Singobile, promises one things. “If Mintails does start re-mining Princess Pit, we will mobilise the community and we’ll have to close their operations down forcefully.”
Mintails Mining is the owners of a significant number of historic tailing facilities in and around the West Rand and Krugersdorp area, but what residents and other parties don’t always realise is that we not the only owner of tailings facilities. It should be noted that Mintails is far from being the largest contributor to dust on the West Rand”.
Its collective tailings ownership does not reach the amount of Gold 1’s Millsite tailings dump complex that contains “120 million tons of tailings”.
That is the largest tailing dump at the edge of Randfontein and “at the start of the general wind direction towards the resident of Randfontein, Soul City, Tudor and Mindalore”, says Mintails.” The volume of dust is coming off the dump is so great it is sometimes visible from Lanseria and much of the West Rand.”
Mining pollution is a “legacy issue”, which the mining companies operating g on the West Rand “and with the relevant expertise to still extract value out of these dumps, have to live with every day”.
Mintails tracks dust and its pollutants, and measures the effects of dust fallout every month.
“Most tailings facilities are covered and semi-rehabilitated, which limits the durst coming off these dumps. When re-mining takes place, the overburden and organics are removed from the dumps which does expose them to a higher potential of releasing dust. Mintails mines only one dump at a time and as such, the volume of dust coming off the dumps is limited to having only one exposed at a time.”
In addition, water is sprayed on to dumps to suppress dust fallout, it adds.
Its mining operations continue to meet the requirements of regulators and dust fall-out levels are below the required limits. The removal of multiple tailings dumps as well as the consolidation, rehabilitation and closing of these dumps permanently will, over time, improve the impact of dust and other pollutants into the environment.
“Tailings will remain a legacy issue as long as the current regulation continues to recognise these facilities as resources and not as waste stockpiles. Once a dump has been re-mined, there is very little economic value left in the tailings and, as such, should be recognised as a waste product for which the closure plan can be implemented to deal with these re-mined tailings in a permanent manner.”