Mystery of rising water baffles all

By Shree Bega Time of article published May 24, 2011

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The Morgenrood family pride themselves on their optimism. So when a dam started to appear in their expansive and manicured garden, they set out to enjoy it.

Their sons took to canoeing on the dam, which they still do, and even jumping in for the occasional swim – which they no longer risk – and the family stocked it with Koi.

But the water has also invaded their home, a stately mansion built by Herbert Baker at the turn of the last century. It is tucked from view on a busy, nondescript street in Randfontein, a mining town, running along Joburg’s western fringes.

“For us, the water is not a problem,” explains Heleen Morgenrood, a vivacious mother of four, while her pet mongoose runs at her feet.

“It was one day in 2007 when our lawnmower got stuck and we discovered the ground was very wet.

“Gradually a small pond started to form and it just got bigger and bigger. We decided to make a small dam from all the water. You can see the stumps where we had two big almond trees, which died because of all the water,” she says.

The water flows stream-like in concrete culverts around the tennis court. A building leans precariously to its side, damaged by the constant flow.

In her daughter’s bedroom in the old mining house, which is now a museum, Heleen pulls on a section of the floor that opens up to a cellar beneath, now filled with water.

She explains the cellar has become somewhat of an attraction for her children’s friends. “We are not worried. The house’s foundations are made of sandstone and are very strong.”

The Morgenroods are among several locals who are reporting unusual water problems.

A few hundred metres from their home, the Dutch Reformed Church’s borehole has started overflowing, while the parking lot of a nearby shopping complex is virtually flooded.

Randfontein draws its name from its water-rich history. Before mining started here over a century ago, water flowed from its 36 fountains that were ultimately dewatered so mining could take place.

Environmental activist Mariette Liefferink, who works to highlight the harmful legacy of mining, explains: “Mining has dewatered the underground compartments.

“Now that mining has ceased, it’s assumed that pre-mining volumes and flow patterns are being restored.

“The mine void is filling up, water is flowing again where historically there were fountains.”

Local entrepreneur Ben Morgenrood concurs. “Our dam is a bonus but only as long as the water stays clear. I see it as nature restoring itself after all the years of mining activity. Whether it stays that way, or should it turn acidic, that’s what we’re worried about.”

Liefferink is also concerned about the potential for acid mine drainage (AMD). This refers to the highly toxic and radioactive water seeping from the underground voids of abandoned or closed mines.

It arises when the sulphide-bearing mineral iron pyrite is exposed to oxygen.

The process is enhanced when water moves through and over acid-bearing rock exposed through mining activities.

The result is contaminated water, poisoned with heavy metals, a low pH, and high levels of sulphates, and potentially radioactive material.

Since 2002, large volumes have been decanting from old mine shafts on property owned by Rand Uranium, which has now been taken over by Gold One, which is only a few kilometres from the Morgenrood’s property.

The problem is that Rand Uranium can only pump around 12.5 million litres of this water a day.

“There is certainly the need for urgent investigation… what is happening in the West Rand is of appreciable magnitude,” says Liefferink, chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE). “There are 56 million litres of AMD spontaneously flowing untreated into receiving watercourses.”

The government’s recently released report drawn up by a team of experts appointed by the Inter-Ministerial Committee on AMD refers to the Western Basin decant of AMD as having a “devastating effect on the ecology in the areas immediately downstream of the decant and degraded streams and groundwater, which feed the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site”.

“After assessing the situation in the Witwatersrand area, the experts recommended that AMD intervention and management measures be undertaken as a matter of urgency to avert impending crises and stabilise the situation,” says the report.

This is the worry for Pastor Llewellyn Oliver. When it rains, his heart stops.

“Every time it rains, the water rises at our church,” he says.

Levels first rose in the church’s borehole in February, and now the church pumps 20 000 litres of water an hour, costing R3 000 a month, which the church can’t spare.

“Four years ago we had to redo the floor of the church because there were cracks in the floor and underneath we found a lot of water.

“Apparently the grounds here used to be a pan.”

The Gauteng Department of Water Affairs says the borehole’s water does “not show any sign of either sewage, industrial or mining related pollution, except high conductivity for the storm water”, and that the borehole meets the drinking water quality standard.

Across the road, businessman Tommy Cowan is fed up. He runs the local Spur, and is the landlord for the water-logged Steers drive-through.

He has spent more than a quarter of a million rand in the past two years trying to construct drainage systems to prevent damage to his properties.

Water tests last year showed the water running here has a low pH and is acidic in nature and “not uncommon in sub-surface water in some mining communities”.

Oliver and Cowan have banded together in a bid to force authorities to act. The Water Affairs Department has since appointed a specialist geohydrologist to assess the borehole decants and the status of the groundwater in the area.

“Recently this paving was floating on top of the water,” says Oliver, pointing to the damage around Steers, which has been “hit hard” by the water problem.

Two months ago, Cowan’s daughter’s beauty salon alongside the Steers had to shut its doors. “Ladies came to get their toenails done and had to walk through all that mud,” says Cowan. “No one wanted to do that any more.”

The water seeping here has a distinct red-orange tinge, associated with AMD, and smells like sulphur. “You can see the reddish colour,” says Liefferink. “That shows iron oxide. It’s very perplexing. If this is the case, then this issue is far worse than we have anticipated. I don’t want to say it’s AMD for certain but we’ve never been wrong. The recent government reports into AMD have all vindicated us.”

But Oliver and Cowan are treading carefully. “No one can prove it’s mine water,” says Cowan. “All I can say is we’ve got excess water… The roads are not going to hold up much longer, there are houses down the road where we’re having to put the drainage in.”

Oliver says: “We cannot with any certainty say this water is mining-related. But the problem is that if it is AMD and it’s being diluted with rainwater, we may only see the extent of the problem in the future. By then it’s too late.”

Regionally the Department of Water Affairs is starting to put measures in place to deal with the recommendations of the Team of Experts on AMD management.

The department says the uncontrolled decant of the Western Basin, which runs under the West Rand, remains of “highest priority and an engineering solution is therefore currently under development to address reducing/terminating the decant in this basin”.

It says the monitoring of AMD sources will largely be conducted by the departments of Water Affairs and Mineral Resources and the Council for Geosciences.

From her home, Heleen says she believes the mysterious flows of water on her property will remain unpolluted.

“In my gut, I don’t feel that there is something wrong. Maybe when the fish and plants start to die then we’ll start worrying.”

Her husband interjects. “Around mining areas there are always concerns but we have to find ways of dealing with them. Randfontein is a wonderful town. I’ve been here most of my life. There’s nowhere else I’d rather live.” - Saturday Star

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