It’s another windy, dusty day on the West Rand’s polluted gold fields and environmental justice activist Mariette Liefferink is trudging through a regular stop on her popular “toxic tours”: the lifeless, poisoned wasteland of Lancaster Dam.
The once pristine headwaters of the upper Wonderfonteinspruit, which supplies Potchefstroom with drinking water, the degraded site in Krugersdorp is acutely toxic, its waters highly corrosive.
Liefferink’s flat shoes crunch on a swirl of sulphurous soil as she gestures to the dam, coated in red, yellow and brown mining slimes.
“That’s all the iron pyrite, the typical signature of acid mine drainage,” explains Liefferink, who heads the Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE).
In 2009, the former Department of Water Affairs and National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) classified 36 radiological hotspots in the Wonderfonteinspruit catchment, the richest gold mining area in the world.
Fifteen were ranked category one sites, “where there is no reason to delay immediate action” and Lancaster Dam was rated the most urgent.
In their remediation action plan, the department and the NNR stated how Mintails, a gold mining and tailings processing company listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, had allowed acutely toxic water and slimes to migrate to the wetlands downstream of Lancaster Dam.
The company’s breach of the dam wall caused unremediated slimes spillages, they stated, and unlined trenches caused the flow of tainted run-off from its dumps into the Wonderfonteinspruit.
They red-flagged significant radioactive contamination downstream in the nearby Tudor Dam wetlands from Mintails’ poor environmental management during its reclamation activities.
Since then, the company’s alleged environmental infractions have only worsened, says Liefferink, who laid charges for the firm’s “criminal” non-compliance in 2014.
“There have been numerous spillages of potentially radioactive and toxic slurry and acid mine water from its pipeline.
“It cherry-picked only the profitable parts of its dumps to re-mine, causing significant dust fallout.”
The financially distressed firm and its subsidiaries, which were placed under business rescue in 2015, have now filed for liquidation, causing the loss of 800 jobs and leaving behind a “massive environmental liability”.
Mintails only set aside R26million in its environmental rehabilitation fund but the damage of its operations was estimated at about R336million in its business rescue plan.
“Mintails motivated their operations as a rehabilitation company but instead exacerbated the pollution. Rather than consolidating the contaminated sites, Mintails’ reprocessing activities have resulted in the creation of additional contaminated sites,” says Liefferink.
At one site she shows a cluster of unfenced, open pits cut deep into the earth.
“That’s where the illegal miners are This is not how you close a mine.”
Liefferink feels a sense of disbelief at what she is witnessing.
“It is the total abandonment, with impunity, of any responsibility and liability at the liquidated Blyvooruitzicht mine and Mintails.
“The non-compliances, inadequate rehabilitation funds and failure to conduct concurrent rehabilitation have taken place over many years and have been well documented but was allowed to continue.
“This pattern will continue since the gold mining industry is in decline.”
The FSE, through its counsel the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), has recently written to the departments of water and sanitation (DWS), mineral resources (DMR) and energy, warning how it will take the necessary legal action to ensure the environment is protected for the benefit of all South Africans and “not for the benefit of international mining companies”.
Only the Department of Energy, through the NNR, has responded to the LRC. The DMR and DWS did not respond to the Saturday Star’s queries.
The letters state how the FSE has sent a “plethora” of complaints since 2006 alerting authorities of the failings by Mintails but authorities failed to take “real action” to safeguard water resources and the environment.
While the DMR and DWS issued the company with several pre-directives and directives for non-compliance since 2013, these were not enforced.
“We’ve now arrived at a situation where Mintails environmental liabilities will be externalised to the state, neighbouring mines, the environment, financially strapped local municipalities, local communities and future generations,” the letters read.
“The polluters must pay,” Liefferink insists.
LRC attorney Lucien Limacher says the FSE would like the DMR to be involved in the liquidation applications and to ensure the correct environmental legal processes that have to be followed be enforced when a mine decides to shut down.
“The Companies Act and environmental and mineral laws do not adequately deal with mines which are closing. The environmental impact of mining on the West Rand is a legacy issue which escalates every time a mine decides to cease its operations.
“The Mintails group has a large mining right area - it includes the Lancaster Dam, a wetland, multiple mine dumps and multiple mine pits.
“This mining right area would need to be rehabilitated in a way that can be sustainable and safe for future use to the communities living in and around that area.”
Godfrey Makomene, a community activist in Meadowlands, calls for authorities to be tougher on mining firms.
“When MIntails started they promised they would re-mine and remove the dumps. But they have left them unvegetated and unrehabilitated. They dug so many open pits.
“When the wind blows, it’s hell. The whole area becomes covered with white dust. They made our lives unbearable Compliance must be enforced with these mining companies.”
Around 60km away, at the Blyvoor mine in Carletonville, Liefferink watches as clouds of fine dust billow from slimes dam six, appearing to cover parts of the Far West Rand.
“The dump is collapsing. It’s all washed away into the Wonderfonteinspruit and blown away. It’s a deplorable situation that could have been prevented,” she says.
Local businessman Paulo de Gouveia agrees. “This is an environmental disaster,” he says.
This week the SA Human Rights Commission reported on the underlying challenges facing mining-affected communities. It highlighted how in the event of the provisional winding up or liquidation of a mining firm, the financial provision for rehabilitation is not recognised as a special claim against the company’s assets to be set aside before satisfying other creditors.
“This is hugely problematic as the burden of an unrehabilitated environment is shifted to communities and the state. The Blyvooruitzicht mine is an example; notwithstanding the undertaking provided in the environmental management plan that the environment would be left ‘geologically and geophysically stable and would not pose an economic, social or environmental liability to the local community and the state, now or in the future’, the mine leaves behind an unrehabilitated footprint.
“This includes toxic and radioactive water, soil, infrastructure, tailing storage facilities without vegetation and dust fallout.
“The total liability in this case is estimated to be R890million, whereas the rehabilitation fund stands at R44m - completely inadequate to address the liabilities. This case suggests that mineral resources department is not securing adequate financial provisioning to rehabilitate damage to the environment and water resources.”
The department, it finds, is not the appropriate authority to grant and enforce environmental authorisations for mining and there is large-scale non-compliance by mining firms and the departments meant to police them.
Mintails has previously argued that its R336m environmental liability was historic, pre-dated its involvement and “should thus not be for Mintails’ account”.
Liefferink, however, says this finds no support in the National Water Act and National Environmental Management Act.
Johan Moolman, the former Mintails chief executive, did not comment further, stating only he had resigned in June.
“They just abandoned their mines as far as I’m concerned,” remarks Kagiso resident Joyce Makhema. “We were glad when we heard they were a rehabilitation company, but now we’re back to square one. Their blasting cracked our houses and there is so much dust.”
A recent report by the Centre for Environmental Rights, Full Disclosure: the Truth about Mining Rehabilitation in SA, concluded that rehabilitation is often not happening at all in South Africa.
“Our landscape is littered with unrehabilitated mining sites. This widespread problem is due, in large part, to the lack of transparency and accountability around financial provisioning for environmental rehabilitation.
“The law requires mining companies, which profit from causing this damage, to set aside and ring-fence enough money to fix it.
“If a mining company fails to rehabilitate, the state is supposed to be able to access that money and carry out the rehabilitation itself.”
But when this system fails taxpayers ultimately must pick up the tab.
Liefferink adds that the Wonderfonteinspruit remediation steering committee has not met for three years.
“It is extensively used for irrigation, domestic and recreational use, watering of cattle, rituals, recreational use and because of erratic water supply, for drinking purposes.
“Mining commenced here in 1886. There’s been no benefits to communities. They’re poor, disrupted, polluted and unenriched.”
Liefferink shows nine files in her dusty bakkie crammed with correspondence between the FSE, Mintails and the government.
“You don’t want to say I told you so, but all the signs were there.”
The Saturday Star