MAC/20: Mines and Communities

South African Government forced to deal with acid mine drainage

Published by MAC on 2010-07-24
Source: Saving Water SA

Government forced to deal with acid mine drainage

Lucky Biyase

Saving Water SA

15 June 2010

Cape Town, South Africa - A coalition of environmental scientists and research teams yesterday forced the government's hand in addressing 120 years of water pollution through acid mine drainage on the Witwatersrand.

Robinson Lake Dam uranium levels are 40 000 times higher than natural levels

The coalition, which had been on the verge of taking legal action against the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs, said it would reconsider that option after it was given a commitment yesterday that "this is going to be a matter of national priority and will also be run via the National Treasury and the Department of Mineral Resources".

"So there is going to be a holistic overview rather than a localised perspective on this endemic problem," said Mariette Liefferink, the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment.

"The reason that led us to resorting to legal action was that we had exhausted all possible avenues, from parliamentary processes to advocacy through the media. But, after assurances from (Mbangiseni) Nepfumbada (the acting deputy director of policy and regulation at the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs), we are going to seek the advice of our legal representative for a review."

The coalition met with Nepfumbada and toured the western Witwatersrand basin, which includes areas such as Randfontein, Krugersdorp, Kagiso and Western Areas.

The tour revealed that several areas were flooded with acid mine water, which was now flowing on the surface, causing the Tweelopiespruit to be acutely toxic.

It also caused the Robinson Lake Dam to be radioactive, with uranium levels 40 000 times higher than natural uranium levels, while the Hippo Dam has become a reactor dam containing radioactive sludge.

The coalition comprises academics from the Council of Geoscience, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs and leading environmental NGOs.

Liefferink said the site visit had revealed what could happen to the eastern and central basins if significant steps were not taken.

"This is a big challenge. We need to find urgent, self-sustainable solutions to treat acid mine drainage, even after mines have closed, in the approximately 40 remaining years for gold mining in these areas," Liefferink said.

She explained that the last remaining mines - Central Rand Gold (CRG) in the central basin, Aurora Empowerment Systems-owned Grootvlei in the east and mines owned by DRDGold, Rand Uranium and Mintails in the western basin - would have to carry the costs of treating water to make it safe for human and animal consumption and crop irrigation.

"This time the department promised to keep us updated with information, the water treatment plans they have at hand and definite time frames for the whole process."

Liefferink added that the western basin problem was a fraction of what could happen in the central basin, as this would affect the whole of the central area of Johannesburg.

"The central basin has about 108 megalitres of mine void water. Currently, the acid mine water is rising by nearly a metre a day and we are currently sitting at 580m away from reaching the uncontrollable mine decant. This would have a terrible impact on the buildings in the Johannesburg CBD and this is a densely populated area," Liefferink said.

She said the sad reality was that the big mines, such as AngloGold Ashanti and JCI, which had maximised profits from the mines and paid no attention to the environmental impacts, were off the hook.

John Ramabaleha, the head of mining at gold junior CRG, said the company had regular visits from the department and had been compliant thus far.

"These big companies who left should come to the table."

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