Residents long for wind of change, but all they get is illness every time a hazardous cocktail blows into town.
MARY Roets cradles her whimpering grandson in her arms like a baby. Every few minutes, little Divan’s body jerks as he is overcome by another coughing fit.
It got so bad a few moments earlier that he vomited all over Roets’s lounge floor. Her blue-eyed grandchild is sick again, and she blames the clouds of toxic dust that Swirl from her unwanted neighbour: a barren mine dump that looms over the neat suburb of Mindalore, nestled in the hea1t of Krugersdorp, like a threat.
Just a few weeks ago, Divan was booked off school, with a severe bout of sinus. It was the same the month before. “Oh, it’s horrible – what all tl1is dust is doing to us,” says Roets, speaking quietly, as she looks at the dump across the road.
“Divan has constant sinus. He suffers from nosebleeds. His eyes are always red and irritated. By May, the family’s medical aid has run out. It’s not just Divan. We are all so sick all the time.”
The 51-year-old has lived in Mindalore for more than 30 years, in the shadow of this mine dump that is now being re-mined to make bricks for homes.
Last year, mining rehabilitation outfit Mintails sta1ted its own opencast mine alongside the mine dump, or tailings, as tl1ey’re also called. “The pollution became even worse,” remarks Roets.
As soon as there’s the merest whisper of wind, Roets puts on a surgical mask to protect herself. She has to do this. Her doctors have warned her that she risks sinus cancer because she is particularly sensitive to mining dust, which is conta111inated witl1 heavy metals, such as cadmium, arsenic and mercury, and is potentially radioactive. “When that dust blows, my voice goes,” she says, her voice, faint and raspy. “You just close all your doors, windows and shut up. And when the sinus starts, goodness, it feels like someone has pm1ched me in the jaw, like there are needles in my mouth. I get ear infections, too.
“The doctor has told me that because of the constant sinus drip, there’s a sore on my vocal chords, it has started to bleed and this can cause me to lose my voice.” Her doctors have also advised her to move out of the blighted area. But she doesn’t know where to go. She has lived here for most of her life and argues that the dumps – not her family – should go.
“But living here, you have to wash your clothes four times and scrape the mine dust from your tables and your cupboards. It’s like sand in your hand … in your mouth.”
Staring at the unwelcome dump across the road, Trudy Fortuin, her friend and neighbour, agrees. The 44-year-old, who works from home, has lived in Mindalore for more than 11 years. Her young children also have continual respiratory infections and nosebleeds, as she does.
“When I cough, I can actually taste the blood in my mouth … At times you can’t even see, that’s how bad it is. You have to put your headlights on there’s so much dust on windy days. The dust covers everything in my house.
“And all this pollution has been exacerbated because of these companies using these dumps and starting to mine here again. Our children have nosebleeds more often, theyâ€™re sitting with sinus problems more often, as we are. It’s worse for us because we are home all day.”
More than 120 years of gold mining on the West Rand have created a dangerous legacy: contaminated water resources and wind-blown dust from the numerous tailings dams in the region.
Because the gold ores are uraniferous, the worry is that the dust from these dumps is not only chemically toxic but potentially radioactive.
Environmental activist Mariette Liefferink points out that 42 tons of tailings dust a day billow over the West Rand, with traces being found as far afield as Tasmania.
Even local authorities have noted that the incidence of respiratory illnesses in the region is exceptionally high, and they term the dust fallout from mine dumps a particular health hazard.
Last year, Carl Albrecht, the head of researcl1 at the Cancer Association of South Africa, collected and chemically analysed mine dust samples from Mindalore and nearby suburbs.
“I found the dumps contained varying amounts of uranium, but what this means in terms of health I do not know,” he says, adding that he is a “one-man team” operating on a “shoestring budget”.
“(The potential health effects) should be ascertained by the government and the mines. It will probably cost about R1O million to R20m to get reliable answers.”
When uranium gets inside the body, it can lead to liver damage, kidney problems and cancer.
Michael Harris, another Mindalore resident, believes the results of the uranium samples, analysed by Wits University last year were explosive.
“There are some seriously high concentrations of uranimn in many of the samples,” says HatTis. “In the top 10 were Riverlea, Mindalore, Lewisham and Soweto.”
Harris believes there is anecdotal evidence of “abnormally high cancer rates” in the area.
Dolf Schneider says Lewisham, where he lives and which flanks Mindalore, also feels the brunt.
“When the wind blows, we see this white blanket of mine dust, and it affects us. My child, who is 6, starts to get nosebleeds.”
Liefferink says that an epidemiological study of the health effects of mine tailings dust is long overdue.
“It (raises) the question why, after more than 130 years of gold mining, an epidemiological study has not been conducted.”
But it’s not only a mining legacy issue.
Companies like Mintails, says Harris, have “more than doubled the hazardous dust problem” in Mindalore.
Residents complain that they were not properly notified about Mintails’ activities.
“One day, we had people coming to inspect our houses to see if there were cracks that would be affected by their blasting,” Fortuin says.
“They told us they would not mine during the night and there would be a cut-off time. That was a lie. They started mining through the night.”
Several months ago, Mintails notified residents it would complete its rehabilitation efforts by the end of last month. But its unfenced open-cast mine remains.
Eddie Milne, the chief executive of Mintails, says: “We do recognise that some remediation works needs to be completed to the relevant areas of our operations and this is scheduled to start as soon as we move into the dty season.”
Rehabilitation during the wet season “does create difficulty (with) equipment and impacts on mine health and safety”.
His company cannot be responsible for the dust fallout, Milne claims. Although it undertook rehabilitation mining in the area, it stopped four months ago. “Our operations were focused on hard-rock mining and not tailings.”
Milne says Mintails, which is rehabilitating tailings across the West Rand and running open-cast operations, is far from being the largest contributor to dust problems.
“The placement of tailings on surface is a legacy issue and should not be confused with the impact that Mintails is having on the environment. Mintails is, in fact, addressing the legacy issues for the betterment of society. Without the action that Mintails takes, the dust would be worse.
“The removal of multiple tailings dumps as well as the consolidation, rehabilitation and closing of these dumps permanently will, over time, improve the mpact of dust and other pollutants,” he says.
But Liefferink says companies like Mintails worsen pollution on the West Rand because rehabilitation has not been completed at several sites, including nearby Kagiso and Boltonia.
“Mintails is not only remining the dumps, it has created new contaminated sites, like in Mindalore.”
Remining removes the vegetation and the crust of the tailings dams, liberating the mine dust, Liefferink says.
Wessel Geldenhuys, who runs a clay brickmaking fir m that witl1 another brickmaker is remining Mindalore’s dump to make bricks, concedes the dust fallout may have become worse.
“Maybe it’s true that by removing the dump we are creating a little more dust, but in six to eight months, thatt dump will be gone and the area will be rehabilitated. That dump has been there for a 100 years.”
Geldenhuys’s fmu uses a small portion of the mine tailings to make bricks.
“It is a bit radioactive, but so is the granite in our kitchens.”
Fortuin says she and her husband have spent thousands of rand fixing up their home.
“We could never get our money back. Who would want to buy here? “We tell ourselves not to expose this mining pollution so we can sell our houses, but what about the health of the people who buy here?”
Roets is in the same boat as Fortuin.
She lifts her bedroom carpet to show a thick layer of mine dust on the floor. “This was tested and was high in uranium. It’s scary. Every year we have to replace our window fittings because they have disintegrated. Imagine what’s happening inside our bodies,” she says.