ACID MINE DRAINAGE IN SOUTH AFRICA
ACID MINE DRAINAGE IN SOUTH AFRICA
After following the headlines regarding the Acid Mine Drainage in our country, which drew media from all over the world including the CNN, Sky News, Reuters, and the BBC, I was convinced that what they were saying was “news”, same as our high level of unemployment and our high level of rape and violence crime, the usual and yet shocking to the world. The documentations I read from the internet, government websites and the environmentalists created more uncertainty. A friend of mine suggested that we go to all these places and record it so that I can write based on my own experiences. Despite all I had read and heard about the problem, nothing had prepared me mentally for this journey. What my eyes witnessed was not just shocking— it was terrifying.
Our first stop led us to the Johannesburg Central Business District where water is said to be looming and waiting for an opportunity to splash out. It was the normal setting of any old CBD but when we took a closer look, the water was a concoction of many different dark colours. One could see a bit of gold, metal and oil in it and where this water is stationed, it had already formed green marks.
We wanted to know more and there was no doubt now, that this is a grave problem currently facing our country. Imagine a cosmopolitan city - Johannesburg, with more than 12 million people and its surrounding areas in need of water because the groundwater is unusable, the rivers are toxic, the farming community can no longer grow food and every person suffers from health problems. The more we thought about it, it made a perfect premise for a great feature film. Chances are this grim story will happen in our country in a couple of months from now and the disaster drum is beating faster every single day, a reminder that each moment counts.
Acid mine drainage is a chemical reaction process that occurs when old mine shafts and tunnels fill up, leading to underground water oxidising with the sulphide mineral iron pyrite otherwise known as "fool's gold". This toxic soup is filled with heavy metals and elevated salt levels which threaten human health and the integrity of the aquatic ecosystem while also disturbing the underlying geology and having a significant negative economic impact. Add that to the mismanaged mine dumps and tailings dams, and the toxicity is tripled.
Today, in Johannesburg, South Africa, the acid water is believed to be currently about 600m below the surface and surrounding areas, but is rising at an estimated rate of between 0.6 and 0.9 metres per day or 15 metres per month. Federation for a Sustainable Environment chief executive Mariette Liefferink said unless there is urgent governmental intervention, the central mining basin will flood within a year to two years.
While this threat looms over Johannesburg, it has already been unleashed in the Western Basin, located below the Krugersdorp-Randfontein area north-west of Johannesburg, since 2002. We spent four hours driving to West Rand goldfields and Robinson Lake near Randfontein because the garage attendant gave us the wrong directions so we ended up in Potchefstroom. The Robinson Dam has 40 000 times more uranium in it than the natural uranium in fresh water. It is fall in South Africa, this means that our weather is warm but when we got there, it was very cold. One wonders why government’s free houses for marginalised communities were built in the land because it is surrounded by sulphate deposits which contain higher uranium levels. The water at Randfontein is highly acidic at pH2.6 to 3.2 and the contaminants are arsenic, zinc, cobalt, and copper which comes with many health hazards and brain damage. There is no life at the Robinson dam except that it is surrounded by mine dumps and tailing dams and it is sterile.
The flooding has led to devastating consequences including the significant cost implications upon communities because food security is threatened. It will affect the vegetable crops being grown. It poses health hazards, as there are chemicals that these communities are inhaling like radioactive uranium, And it threatens mass destruction of the eco-systems in the Wonderfonteinspruit and the Tweelopiesspruit river systems. These form part of the Vaal River System to the South and North before meeting in the Limpopo River which leads to the Indian Ocean.
Since the leaking started, the issue of AMD became a matter for public concern as the effects of AMD became immediately apparent. The results of AMD pollution will still be evident long after the problem has been rectified. The Environmentalists have since been stressing that the pumping and treatment of mine water is critical and should be implemented in the western, central and eastern basins as a matter of urgency. For its part, the Government has been dragging its feet to the crisis.
In their Draft Regional Closure Strategy for the Central Rand goldfields 2008, the Department of Mineral Resources said the flooding of the central mining basin and the subsequent decant—or leaking—of AMD will result in the destruction of eco-systems and aquatic biota, sterilization of river systems, significant contamination of ground and surface water, seismicity (physical instability) and impacts upon the structural integrity of buildings in low-lying areas. Exactly when this will happen is difficult to pinpoint due to a lack of transparency within the mining industry. “There is reticence on the part of the mines to release important data in order to accurately determine the rate of rise within the central mining basin,” said Mariette Liefferink.
In 1960 the Jordaan Commission recommended the dewatering by pumping of the underground mining basins in order to maximize the profits of mining companies and to increase the revenue of the apartheid Government. When mines close, mines stopped pumping and premining flow patterns and volumes are restored. However, the water is of poor quality, contaminated with sulphates and toxic and radioactive heavy metals. This crisis could have been avoided if the mining companies responsible like DRD Gold – and the government were not at loggerheads playing the blame game. There seems to be no evidence of efficient reporting on the part of the government and implementation on the part of the mines. Most of the documents I read cannot pinpoint the dates when the mine stopped pumping. The challenge now is that it cost more than R2.5 million a month to pump the water, it is money that we, the taxpayers are supposed to pay for.
For South Africa, the environmental and cultural impacts of Acid Mine Drainage are only surpassed by global warming. If the AMD challenge is not effectively dealt with, the poisoned water will potentially enter and damage the Sterkfontein caves, which form part of the 3.5-million-year-old Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site (COHWHS) and the nearby Krugersdorp Nature Reserve. This region is one of the most important and richest archaeological and paleontological resources located in South Africa, and has yielded the biggest collection of hominid fossils in the world. Unless action is taken, the Central Basin—which is already flooding underground—will start to pour out. And that means we will see poisoned water in places that we don’t want to, like the basements of buildings in the Johannesburg CBD. 57 million litres of toxic water will be looking for a place to surface every day.
The environmental degradation of this priceless World Heritage Site will have a major impact on the archaeological and palaeontological heritage of not only South Africa, but the world, as well as the tourism, hospitality and education sectors of South Africa. If monitoring, mitigation and management measures are not implemented effectively with immediate effect to avoid or minimise the negative effects, the COHWHS may stand the risk of losing its status and be demoted to the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger. Ultimately, if the site loses its characteristics that determined its inscription World Heritage List, the World Heritage Committee may in turn decide to delete the property from its list.
According to Garfield Krige, an environmentalist expert, the AMD has already reached deep into the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, as evidenced by the fish kills in the Koelenhof Dam, adjacent to the Wonder Cave.
Such pollution represents arguably the most mismanaged environmental disaster South Africa has ever witnessed. Official government reports of the impacts of the rewatering of mining basins have been available to government since 1957. Despite this, the government failed to put into place proactive management plans to prevent the flooding of the mining basins and decant.
Government action with regards to this disaster has been varied and confusing: any response involves five departments, each with different interests. In an ideal world industry would pay to clean up the devastating amount of AMD within South Africa, under government oversight. However, extreme government inaction has led to little payment and even less accountability.
The environmentalists have engaged in formal and informal discussions, energy, environmental and water forums, news media, legal interventions, and lobbying in Parliamentary Portfolio Committees, on provincial, local and national levels. In response, there has been a lot of “head in the sands activity”, denial, suppression of facts, minimization of impacts and urgency, and accusations of NGO alarmist’s statements by government since 1996.
Short term solutions to acid mine drainage have been implemented. A Remediation Action Plan of the Wonderfonteinspruit Catchment Area was constructed by the government, mining companies, and civil society organisations. Since being published in the beginning of 2009 no remedial action has been seen. A new pumping station and upgrades to the high-density sludge treatment works are urgently required to stop the disaster. On 18 March 2010, the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Ms Buyelwa Sonjica visited the decant area in the West Rand basin and donated R6.9 million for the interim treatment of the AMD.
The Deputy Minister of the Department of Water Affairs, Ms. Rejoice Mabudafhasi, in her speech in parliament on the Environment Budget Vote, delivered on 16 April 2010, acknowledged and recognized the urgency and seriousness of the AMD situation. Mabudafhasi stated: “There is a big problem of Acid Mine Drainage in the Witwatersrand area which threatens our ground water resources and the very integrity of the environment and human survival. We are currently engaged with short term interventions to alleviate the worst effects, but the time has come for those responsible to account for their actions. AMD is not unique to South Africa and other countries had no difficulty in implementing technically viable processes to treat AMD. What is required is political will and commitment.
The Federation for a Sustainable Environment has summarised that the Government should act with urgency and Implement the desalination of AMD and not merely neutralization of AMD, which results in significant volumes of radioactive and toxic sludge and high sulphate loads. In addition to that it should stop the entry of water into the mining basins; stop authorization of unsustainable mining rights applications which will perpetuate the generation of AMD; and address the diffuse sources of AMD, such as the 270 tailings dams which were established on unlined dolomite and which contain 6 billion tons of iron pyrite tailings. Because tailings dams cannot be maintained in an oxygen-free environment, they will continue to generate AMD for hundreds or thousands of years.
The work of activists, concerned citizens, community groups and the media has brought the AMD danger into the spotlight, but there is no time to waste. In July 2010 the government stated that potential decant within the Johannesburg area could take place within 18 months, or by early 2012. Those 18 months have now shrunk to 12 months. The only solution so far is to pump out and treat the water before discharging it into streams and rivers.
The question remains, while the acknowledgement of the seriousness of the issue is a step in the right direction, whether it is too late. I believe we can remedy the situation if we work together to find a solution. The media and the Federation for a Sustainable Environment with other organisations have demonstrated the possibilities of reversing the AMD challenge. We are South Africa – a "More than you imagine" country.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.