A toxic delay

This is the plant owned by Rand Uranium were water containing minerals from the mines are cleaned before been realsed to dams and ocenas. Picture:Paballo Thekiso

This is the plant owned by Rand Uranium were water containing minerals from the mines are cleaned before been realsed to dams and ocenas. Picture:Paballo Thekiso

Published Jan 28, 2012


Just as the Tweelopiespruit took its dying breaths, Garfield Krige scooped up the contaminated stream’s last surviving fish and took them home with him to his fish pond in the nearby Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.

“I don’t think they’re unique in any way,” explains Krige, a hydrologist, of the hardy tilapia population that clung to life and now breeds happily in his pond.

“But they are the last survivors of the Tweelopiespruit. Maybe one day the government will clean up the river and we can put these fish back as their descendants.”

After about a decade of daily poisoning from the millions of litres of acid mine drainage (AMD) – the toxic and radioactive water seeping from the abandoned mines on the West Rand – there is no life in the Tweelopiespruit.

The noxious trail of pollution continues through to the Krugersdorp Game Reserve and into waterways of the Cradle where Krige has lived for the past nine years.

“You can see this big orange area that used to be under irrigation and is now sort of dead because of the AMD,” says Krige, gesturing to a fallow field around him, an eerie cluster of withered trees nearby. “Most of the time this land is flooded with mine water… I can show pictures of the same stream that flows here (the Rietspruit), that was a deep burgundy red a year ago because of the AMD.”

Krige and his fellow landowners in the Cradle are toying with class action against the government and mines because of the continuous degradation of their land.

This comes a year after the release of a long-awaited report into AMD last February, commissioned by the government, which called for immediate action to stop the flow of drainage water from the Witwatersrand’s mining basins and for the pumping and treatment of polluted water.

But where the poisoned water rises and flows, little has improved. “We feel, as residents of the Cradle, that our area is being degraded. We’re proud of having tourists come here and look at our fossils. We don’t want to see the place going down the drain.”

A recently released report by the CSIR, commissioned by the Gauteng Economic Development Department, has found that most of the fossil sites in the Cradle have a low risk of vulnerability to AMD, with the exception of Bolt’s Farm and the Sterkfontein Caves.

Krige says landowners have initiated a Cradle of Humankind “rescue committee”.

“It’s as if we’re talking in circles and getting nowhere. The government has known about AMD since 1996. But what’s been done? Nothing. Millions have been spent on meetings, and getting to meetings and talking and more talking, reports and more reports, and still here the poor-quality water flows, into the Crocodile River and Hartbeespoort Dam.”

Environmentalist Mariette Liefferink agrees. Near Krige’s home, she walks alongside a crystal-clear stream. But the water flowing here is tainted and an impromptu test reveals it has a pH of 2, virtually the same as battery acid.

No one in the surrounding community of informal settlements and farms, who rely on stream and river water, know the danger though.

“This is where I see people take containers of water to drink and where people are baptised. But there are no signs or fences and authorities do water tests here. The management of AMD is not appropriate, it is not responsible,” she says.

The 146-page report by a team of experts of the inter-ministerial committee on AMD called for urgent intervention and management measures to avert an impending crisis in the western, eastern and central mining basins, noting the devastating effects of AMD on groundwater, surface water and the ecology of the West Rand in particular.

“You’d expect that since this has become such a visible issue there would be massive upgrading or installation of treatment plants, but that hasn’t happened,” says a frustrated Liefferink. “I’ve seen no improvement and there’s been no public engagement or consultation. The only public consultation is associated with the building of plants – not the methods the government wants to use to treat the water.”

Then, last year, the government appointed the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA) to undertake the immediate and short-term measures to address AMD. But it still has not received funding from the Department of Water Affairs.

“The R428 million is available for the TCTA, but we just have to get the process finalised,” says Marius Keet, the department’s regional director.

“Now we’re appointing contractors to build the treatment plants and pipelines and we need money for that and it is available.”

The government’s short-term approach to AMD is to discharge neutralised water, which is still toxic as it contains high levels of sulphates, into waterways. Neutralising reduces the levels from 4 700 parts per million to 3 700 parts per million – consider that the standard for drinking water is 600 parts per million and 150 parts per million for irrigation. Neutralisation also leaves radioactive sludge in its wake.

Keet says: “Sludge is always an issue, we cannot just get rid of sludge and put it anywhere.”

According to Krige neutralisation should have been done years ago.

“Neutralisation is not a solution. That should have been done when the first drop of water started coming out. They’ve had since 1996 to build a plant.

“And it appears the taxpayers are going to pay for this. The long delays and period of indecision have really given all the mines ample time to get out of their responsibilities, which they have done very well. That indecision is the fault of the government. It’s too dangerous to take your rubber stamp and say: ‘Approved, go on.’”

The Witwatersrand is the largest gold and uranium mining basin in the world, and about 350 million litres a day of AMD is expected to flow on the surface, as well as sub-surface, without intervention.

But Keet says the government’s treatment plan is on track. “Look, many things are happening behind the scenes. If you ask me whether we’re on track, except for the two months we’ve lost with our emergency plans, I think we’re fairly on track, given the fact we have more time than we thought.”

He envisions the first phase of refurbishment of an existing treatment plant on the West Rand to be operational by the end of next month – after a two-month delay – and for a plant to treat 30 million litres a day to be up and running a month and a half later. On the West Rand, only around 12 million litres of AMD are treated a day now.

“We hope to deal with, if not all, most of the AMD currently running out. If it starts start raining again, then we’re sitting with a problem and there is the potential for further AMD to run out untreated, but that is something we knew from the beginning.

The Central Basin (which runs beneath Joburg) and the Eastern Basin (on the East Rand) are filling up slower than we thought.”

It is unfortunate, he says, that neutralisation will still mean high sulphate loads will be released into waterways. “Our long-term feasibility study will determine what exactly to do with the water, what technology is going to be applied, who will operate the plants and where we’ll take the water to.”

But if the government’s interests wanes, that of others is ignited. Liefferink, now in her 12th year of activism, spends her days fielding calls from journalists, researchers, schools and church groups eager to join her “toxic tours” of the West Rand’s blighted landscape.

For the past two weeks, a team of researchers from the human rights division at Harvard University’s law school have been at her side, gathering anecdotal evidence of illness among communities living in mining areas.

“They don’t want to scare the mines and the government to be interviewed so they don’t speak about litigation, but their research findings can give us scientific information if we wish to pursue with legal intervention.”

She cites as another example of government inaction where Robinson Lake in Randfontein, had in 2002 uranium levels measured at 40 000 times above natural levels.

“Despite this high-profile government committee, all the task team reports and recommendations, nothing has changed. We’re still having radioactive hot spots like Lancaster Dam and Robinson Lake.”

A recent Gauteng government report found that the 380 mine dumps and slimes dams around Gauteng could be a bigger threat than AMD because they are causing radioactive dust fallout, toxic water pollution and soil contamination.

“You must remember the sources are all the tailings dams, which allow for significant seepage into the groundwater,” Liefferink says. “The problem is far greater than the pumping and treatment of the mining basins.”

Dr Mike Whitcutt, an experimental scientist, also bemoans the slow pace of work to deal with AMD.

“I don’t see progress. It’s all talk. I’ve been to some meetings, and they provide a nice lunch, but the only decision is when is the next meeting.”

For this, he blames the “tunnel vision” of departments.

“It’s being ignored because government departments operate like tunnels. Each is only authorised to deal with what they can see at the end of their tunnel. They are administratively non-functional.”

Liefferink adds: “I’ve said the same thing over and over again. But I continue in the hope that one day some person or organisation will make the difference. Just the fact that AMD has been acknowledged and recognised as an environmental crisis, is already a victory for me.” - Saturday Star

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