Johannesburg - Just south of Krugersdorp, the Lancaster Dam collects polluted runoff from the surrounding Mintails Mining South Africa operations.
A recent visit by The Star found the dam wall broken, allowing dangerous seepage into the Wonderfonteinspruit. Downstream, Kagiso residents use the water to irrigate neatly tilled gardens.
Johan Moolman, the chief executive of the tailings pile remining company, said it planned to pump the dam dry within the next three months to check for cracks. However, the company is in business rescue and lacks sufficient funding for extensive rehabilitation. Mintails is working with the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) to find a way out.
In a country with more than 6 000 identified derelict and abandoned mines, Mintails is but one example of South Africa’s failed system of mine closure caused by insufficient rehabilitation funds and a lack of enforcement.
Visits to the combined 1 715 hectares of the Mintails and associated companies’ mining rights in the West Rand found a pollution control pond among the reeds marking the Wonderfonteinspruit, pipes leaking waste, minimal access control to dangerous mine sites and open pits with little or no backfilling.
The Australian Stock Exchange listed-Mintails’s closure plan and spreadsheets of related costs – provided by the Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE) – reveal that the estimated cost to prematurely close and rehabilitate the company’s three rights is nearly R260 million.
Moolman would not divulge the exact amount of existing funds but admitted it was inadequate.
He said a plan was accepted on November 4 to move Mintails out of business rescue by agreeing to use the profits from future tailings pile remining for rehabilitation.
The company will recommission a mothballed processing plant with the hopes of beginning the production and rehabilitation by October next year.
A former Mintails employee helped blow the whistle on the company, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I’ve never seen any evidence of that,” the former employee said. “In my opinion, Mintails doesn’t have the financials to do any rehabilitation.”
An August 2014 inspection of the operations by the Department of Water and Sanitation found numerous issues including unlined trenches carrying slurry, spillages along pipelines and an unauthorised pipe crossing a waterway.
“There was a systemic non-enforcement, and there is gross non-compliance with (Mintails’s) legally binding environmental management programme and its legally binding water use licence,” FSE chief executive Mariette Liefferink said.
Mintails has one full-time employee working on environmental issues, although the company contracts for physical remediation. “It’s basically just to keep the DMR away,” a source said.
Residents living near the operations are exposed to dust and polluted water containing uranium and other heavy metals.
Community members in the Tudor Shaft informal settlement said mine waste flowed through the area when it rained.
* The Star has previously published a story on this by sister paper Saturday Star’s multi-award-winning environmental writer Sheree Bega. Read the story here.
Residents of other communities also complained of health issues, which they linked to the mine waste, although a lack of epidemiological studies hampers both sides of the argument.
The former Mintails employee said the company made an effort at dust suppression when mining, but the area was too large to manage.
“Mintails is an excellent example of what happens when smaller mining companies purchase the assets of bigger mining companies and then often just apply for business rescue or winding up when they cannot comply with their obligations to remediate,” Liefferink said.
Through the Promotion of Access to Information Act requests and with assistance from the FSE, The Star obtained exclusive access to DMR documentation.
The information, related to mine closure and rehabilitation, depicts the unwillingness of companies and the DMR to close mines and accept liability.
According to the documents, mining rights are rarely, if ever, granted closure certificates, which are the documents needed to legally declare a mine rehabilitated and no longer the responsibility of the company.
Between July 2012 and July last year, 33 mines in Gauteng applied for closure certificates. Since then, 15 of those requests have been granted, with zero going to mining rights.
In order to obtain permits or rights, companies must give financial guarantees to fund rehabilitation if a company becomes insolvent or walks away from the mine.
No experts were able to identify an instance in which a mining house or the DMR opened a mine closure trust fund or financial provision meant for rehabilitation and spent it on rehabilitation. Even if they did, experts say the money would probably be insufficient.
According to the 2015/16 DMR annual report, the department remains liable for at least R1.7 billion due to abandoned mines it plans to rehabilitate. But the process of properly closing old, abandoned mines is slow and costly, especially as money from current financial provisions cannot be used for historical mines.
Last year, Mintek awarded five tenders worth more than R47m for rehabilitation of abandoned asbestos mines. Between July 2012 and July last year, the Council for Geoscience (CGS) granted tenders worth more than R8m to three companies to simply close open shafts.
“The objective is to make (rehabilitation) a one-off effort,” Mintek sustainable development head Herman Cornelissen said. “But we cannot spend oodles of money on a given site just to ensure it will be absolutely perfect.”
Of the roughly 6 000 abandoned mine sites across the country, Mintek has rehabilitated 19 asbestos mines, and the CGS closed about 190 shafts through sub-contractors, although zama zamas often break through these seals.
According to a 2009 Auditor-General report, the CGS estimated the cost to rehabilitate the remaining mines at R30bn before taking into account the billions more needed for long-term treatment of drainage. Additionally, Mintek and the CGS deal almost exclusively with older mines, and have legal trouble taking on recently abandoned sites.
Smaller mining houses occasionally walk away from an operation when minerals prices are low and reappear when prices increase.
“As you go through cycles (of mineral prices), you have people taking old properties and reviving them,” Henk Coetzee, a scientist who spent a decade working on the CGS Derelict & Ownerless Mines Project, said.
There is some progress, though, as the National Nuclear Regulator and the South African Human Rights Commission are investigating the impact of mines on communities.
On November 3, the SAHRC finished five days of hearings on communities affected by mining.
The commission heard testimony from mining houses, the government and activists, and a report should be published in March.
The DMR didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
* Mark Olalde’s work is supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism, the Fund for Environmental Journalism and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.