The armoured vehicle could go no further. It idled tentatively, a few hundred metres from a devastating scene: scores of illegal miners were stripping the Mintails gold treatment plants and infrastructure in Randfontein.
A line of vehicles were parked outside, where the security arm of the Zama Zamas ostensibly demanded payment from other illegal miners to enter the beleaguered premises.
“They first have to pay before they can enter to go and steal,” said Mariette Liefferink, the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE), seated inside the vehicle, which was guarded by three heavily armed security personnel.
“What we see here is the wholesale looting and scavenging of whatever has value, whether it’s copper cables, gold dust or steel.”
Last Wednesday, liquidators for Mintails, a gold mining and tailings processing company listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, terminated the services of security personnel.
What unfolded next was a free-for-all. “It opened the way for hundreds of looters to loot Mintails’ infrastructure and the gold treatment plants,” she explained.
“It appears the Hawks seems also to be fearful to get involved. This is a free-for-all, - the looting is continuing with impunity and no enforcement.”
Over the weekend, 70 to 80 vehicles at a time entered the premises to scavenge copper cables, metal and gold dust.
Mintails offices, too, have been stripped bare. Thick plumes of black smoke curled into the sky where copper cables were being burnt.
“There will only be scrap left,” said Liefferink, of the Mogale Gold facilities, the only asset left in the liquidated group of companies.
But the illegal miners have already pilfered the electrical cable, which supplies power to 9 Shaft, where acid mine drainage (AMD) from the flooded Western Mining Basin is pumped.
“They’re already making big money – and once they’ve taken everything there, the worry is they will come for 9 Shaft and neighbouring mines” said Liefferink.
Since last week Friday, the pumping of AMD has halted. Usually up to 40 million litres is pumped each day.
“The water level is increasing by about 110mm a day. If nothing is done, it will decant in three months. This is a serious situation because when we last had an AMD decant in 2002, it had devastating impacts on the surrounding environment.”
The Tweelopiespruit and the Wonderfonteinspruit were left poisoned by the acidic, toxic and radioactive water, which affected downstream water users and posed risks to the Cradle of Humankind.
“The people in the Swartkrans compartment, which hosts the sensitive Cradle of Humankind, are totally reliant on this water for drinking purposes and for and irrigation.”
Sputnik Ratau, the spokesperson for the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, said there was no risk of an AMD decant for now.: “There is no immediate risk of raw AMD decanting. The water level in the void is around nine metres 9m below surface and this is considered ample buffer capacity for now.
“The Western Basin AMD pump station is near the Mintails’ office block and the cable was sabotaged and stolen on May 24. Power to
the Western Basin AMD pump station (on Mintails’s property) and the AMD treatment plant (some distance away on the property of Sibanye Stillwater) is thus compromised and the facility is currently not operational,” he said.
Wanda Mkutshulwa, spokesperson for the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA), said it was strictly monitoring the rise of AMD.
The Western Basin plant had been affected by cable theft and damage to the electricity switch, she said.
“The cable comes from the Eskom substations and runs through the Mintails security area. The plant has been shut down since then.
“Due to increased theft and damage to the Mintails gold treatment plant area it was decided that it would be risky to repair the current power line as it will be vulnerable to ongoing cable theft, increasing repair costs and unprecedented downtime on the plant.
“To reduce downtime the option of installing a generator was considered, however, due to the power needs of the plant it was ascertained that the size of the generator is not readily available and would be costly.
“In the interest of speed and safety TCTA together with Sibanye Gold took a decision to install an overhead power supply, which is due to be completed by Tuesday.”
Ratau said the AMD treatment plant had permanent security and was “not at risk from the Zamas plundering” the Mintails infrastructure.
“There is prolific Zama Zama activity in the area of the now-liquidated (and abandoned) Mintails’ mine. The Zamas are heavily armed and are stripping metal, electrical cables, gold-bearing waste, etc, on the property of Mintails.”
Ratau said armed security personnel would be permanently deployed at the pump station to deter future attempts of cable theft or other damage to the pump station, including the stripping of metal.
The Department of Mineral Resources said it was aware of the situation and “working with all relevant stakeholders to mitigate any damage to the environment”.
Mintails applied for business rescue in October 2015, but was liquidated in September last year. It has an unfunded environmental liability of R485 million, but only around R25 millionm financial provision in its environmental rehabilitation funds.
“We’ve seen in the Blyvoor case, in the Grootvlei case and now in the Mintails case, that besides the environment and future generations carrying the risks, impact and costs, neighbouring mines also have to cover the costs,” said Liefferink.
In recent months, the FSE has sent urgent and final letters of demand to several key government departments including Water and Mineral Resources for allowing Mintails to operate from 2012 to 2018 without a mining right, an approved environmental management programme report and adequate financial provisions and has threatened legal action.
She described a “total paralysis” of government departments to take action. “Last Thursday, the same departments conducted yet another site visit of Mintails operations, which showed… overwhelming evidence of flagrant failure in duty of care, non-compliance with environmental legislation and non-enforcement of non-compliance, environmental degradation and pollution. Numerous letters of demand have been written and...no action has been taken.”