Gold rush leaves toxic hangover

A new study has found that gold mining has contaminated water, the soil and the air with elevated levels of heavy metals, with dire consequences for communities. Picture: Boxer Ngwenya

A new study has found that gold mining has contaminated water, the soil and the air with elevated levels of heavy metals, with dire consequences for communities. Picture: Boxer Ngwenya

Published Oct 15, 2016


The 'West and Central Rand' have historically contained some the biggest gold deposits on Earth. But extracting this resource has left a dangerous environmental legacy, says the Harvard Law School in a new and alarming report. Sheree Bega examines some of its findings

An eerie silence hangs over the dead waters of Robinson Lake and the crumbling ruins of the abandoned buildings that encircle the wasteland.

Mariette Liefferink, of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, often brings scientists, academics and government employees to the Randfontein site, a stop in her weekly “toxic tour”.

This is because it aptly illustrates the devastation after mining, she says. “This is the dance hall where Lady Robinson practised,” says Liefferink, pointing to a dilapidated building. Her eyes move to a few abandoned mansions set apart beyond the lake. “The golf course bought Robinson Lake to develop a luxury golf estate. But look at it now: it’s a declared radioactive dam. It’s unfenced.”

In 2003, uranium levels at Robinson Lake, where a local mine first pumped decanting acid mine drainage (AMD) into, were 40 000 times above uranium levels in natural water. Robinson Lake’s exceedingly high uranium levels are cited in a new 6-year study, The Cost of Gold: Environmental, Health and Human Rights Consequences of Gold Mining in South Africa’s West and Central Rand, by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.

The report finds that gold mining on the West and Central Rand - researchers interviewed residents from 20 communities spanning Riverlea, Meadowlands and Bekkersdal - has contaminated water, soil and air with elevated levels of heavy metals, including uranium.

“Local people have been exposed to AMD when using local waterways for agriculture, laundry or recreation. Residents have also inhaled dust from toxic and radioactive mine waste dumps, or tailings dams.”

Elevated concentrations of heavy metals and radiation can cause immediate and long-term medical problems ranging from asthma and skin rashes, cancer and organ damage, notes the report. Yet the government has not fully met its obligations to ensure that communities in these areas can exercise their rights to health, a healthy environment, water and housing.

While the authors - the research was led by Bonnie Docherty, a senior clinical instructor at the clinic - recognise that the involvement of the mining industry and community are vital to deal with the crisis of mining waste, the report’s criticism - and recommendations - largely focus on the actions of the government, “which has a legal obligation to guarantee human rights”.

“South Africa should adopt a co-ordinated, comprehensive programme that both mitigates the effects of mining and helps the country meet its responsibilities under domestic, international and regional human rights law,” says Docherty.

Last week, a submission by a group of civil society organisations, including the Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, to the UN Human Rights Council, in preparation for its Universal Periodic Review - South Africa, stated how the environmental and human damage done by mining violates the human rights of many communities across the country.

“These violations disproportionately impact poorest and most vulnerable communities, because they are frequently located close to mines and coal-fired power plants. Despite the environmental and social harms of mining, the government is not enforcing the relevant environmental standards.”

The government has been aware of the dangers of AMD since 1937, yet its slow response has “delayed efforts to deal with the problem and allowed harm to continue”, says the Harvard report.

AMD and its potential impacts have not only put communities at risk but also raised significant human rights concerns under national and international law.

“Community members have indirectly ingested AMD, especially by eating vegetables ingested with the polluted water, meat from cattle that have drunk from local waterways, and fish from contaminated bodies of water.

“Residents told us they suffered from skin rashes after exposure, and studies done in other parts of the world have documented long-term health impacts such as cancer and organ damage,” says Docherty.

Tailings dams, or mine dumps, have exposed the region’s residents to elevated levels of heavy metals through several pathways. “This has included inhalation and ingestion of dust, cultivation, and the consumption of contaminated food, direct contact with soil and use of traditional medicines.”

Children who have lived near, and frequently played on, tailings dams, face especially serious health risks. “Pre- and post-natal exposure to contaminants such as arsenic, cadmium and lead (can cause) neurological damage, skin lesions and cancer.”

Residents of at least 10 communities believe mine dust has caused breathing difficulties. But the government has “underused” dust control measures that could reduce the adverse effects of tailings.

Despite the protections enshrined in the constitution, “mining waste, whether in the form of dust or soil, has created conditions that may be unacceptably harmful to well-being. The dust blanket- ing communities has interfered with residents’ welfare and presented a health hazards that seems to have already caused health problems.”

“While re-mining has had the potential to reduce some risks posed by tailings, it has exacerbated the health threat.”

And while contamination levels have been well-documented, the report notes that there has been a shortage of epidemiological studies probing the effects of mining contamination in the region. “The lack of such information has undermined residents’ abilities to protect themselves or advocate on their own behalf.”

Last year, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer with the mine water research group of North West University started a study of uranium exposure from mines in and around Joburg.

For this, Liefferink collected 1 500 hair samples from 10 at-risk communities and control samples. Testing is under way, says Professor Frank Winde, a uranium expert from the university. “We’re in the process of analysing all samples and comparing results from different labs. This is taking a while as samples needs to be shipped internationally and methods for homogenising hair had to be found and refined.”

The health department is also supporting epidemiological studies of communities in the region.

“The remains of abandoned legacy mines, as well as new operations, have contaminated the region. Because the area has been densely populated, disadvantaged communities have borne the greatest burden,” says Docherty.

Saturday Star

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