MAC: Mines and Communities

London Calling proffers a history lesson on South Africa's toxic tailings

Published by MAC on 2010-09-14
Source: The Telegraph (UK) (2010-09-06)

Anyone who’s witnessed Johannesburg's mountains of mining wastes can easily anticipate how disastrous they will become should they get mixed with a rising "toxic tide" of waters lying in the city's central basin.

Having said this, for many decades residents of outlying districts have suffered from metal-laden dust storms blowing off tailings heaps, having to draw water from polluted streams and aquifers.

And the authorities have virtually ignored their plight.

It was only when stinking filthy water from the River Thames actually washed onto the floor of the Houses of Parliament that British MPs voted to check sewage pollution in the UK capital.

Enter Joseph Bazalgette, a civil engineer who constructed London's first underground sewage system. Exit the foul mess down along the Thames, thus saving numerous citizens from the future ravages of cholera.

But all that was more than 150 years ago.

Soon afterwards, British-financed companies (with many miners at their head) were “exporting” their intrinsic toxicity to other parts of the world; notably to South Africa and its fabulous reefs of gold.

The fate of millions was sealed, their lives cut short.

Going against the flow

Earlier this month South African “water activist”, Mariette Liefferlinke, predicted that Johannesburg's toxic legacy would shorty erupt at the very heart of its central business district.

This, she says, is one "built over the central basin and home to some of Africa’s biggest firms.”

Perhaps, then, some radical action will be taken to staunch a potentially lethal liquid onslaught?

Never mind that comprehensive mine reclamation, designed to save the livelihoods of thousands of poor black citizens in the extraction zones, isn't likely to materialise.

When Joe Bazelgette set about cleaning up his metropolis in 1858 he took the health of all its citizens to heart and into his hands; expense was little object.

Is there any prospect of the good burghers of Johannesburg doing more than trying to save their own skins and protect their precious balance sheets?

[London Calling is written by Nostromo Research. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of any other party, including the editors of the MAC website. Reproduction is welcomed, provided full acknowledgment is given to Nostromo Research and sources quoted.]

Rising tide of acid mine water threatens Johannesburg

A toxic tide of acid mine water is rising steadily beneath Johannesburg which, if left unchecked, could cause earth tremors, power blackouts and even cancer among residents, experts have warned.

By Aislinn Laing

The Telegraph

6 September 2010

The water is currently around 600 metres below the city’s surface but is rising at a rate of between 0.4 and 0.9 metres per day, meaning it could overflow onto the streets in just under a year and a half.

Because it would take 13 months to build a pumping station to clear the water, a legacy of 120 years of mining around Johannesburg, the state has just four months to find the millions of pounds needed to fund it.

It is currently locked in negotiations with multinational mining firms who have profited from the area’s rich natural resources over who should pay and how much.

Announcing a task force of experts set up to deal with the issue yesterday, Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica said she was hoping that the potential dividends from tapping a new water supply for human consumption and use in industry would entice investors.

Acidic water is created when abandoned mine shafts and tunnels fill up with ground water which oxidises with heavy metals and the sulphide mineral iron pyrite, known as “fool’s gold” because of its yellowish hue.

Without effective drainage, it pours out into waterways, polluting crops and poisoning those living nearby.

According to water activist Mariette Liefferink, from the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, the water is the same acidity of lemon juice or vinegar and poses an “enormous threat” to the city and its inhabitants.

Particularly at risk is the central business district which is built over the central basin and is home to some of Africa’s biggest firms. According to Miss Liefferink, the buildings they are housed would be damaged as the mine water corrodes steel and concrete.

She added that some of the city’s poorer residents are already living on top of mine dumps filled with carcinogenic metals which, if they react with the rising mine water, will pollute the entire water system.

“This environmental problem is second [in South Africa] only to global warming in terms of its impact, and poses a serious risk to the area as a whole,” she told the water affairs portfolio committee.

Marius Keet, a senior government official in charge of water management, said that when the rainy season arrives in the coming months, the tide will begin rising faster and the results could be “catastrophic”.

Mr Keet said the recommended “environmental critical level” for the rising acid mine water was 150m below surface. The environmental impacts should it rise above this level, he said, include earth tremors and the possible formation of sinkholes.

Minister Sonjica has given her team of experts six weeks to find investors and come up with a viable rescue package which she will then take to the Cabinet for approval.

At present, the price tag of a new pump station and pipeline, and an upgrade to an existing waterworks – all of which are deemed essential for treating the acid mine water – is R218 million (£19m). However, the current budget only allows for investment of R14 million.


Poisonous water rising from the ground threatens Johannesburg

Geoffrey York

Globe and Mail

20 September 2010 

Johannesburg - Africa's wealthiest city was built on gold. Fortunes were made, mansions were built, thousands of miners toiled and a metropolis was created.

But today, after 120 years of mining, the gold is disappearing, hundreds of mine shafts have been abandoned, and Johannesburg is facing a nightmare of biblical proportions: a vast tide of poisonous water rising inexorably toward the foundations of the city itself.

The problem is known as "acid mine drainage" and it has affected mining regions around the world, including Canada. With nearly 6,000 abandoned mines across the country, South Africa is more endangered than any other. But no metropolis is as threatened as Johannesburg, and the situation here offers a glimpse of what might some day happen in parts of Canada if the problem is not properly managed.

Some analysts are calling it a ticking time-bomb. One scientist has described it as "South Africa's own Chernobyl" - potentially one of the worst environmental catastrophes in the continent. The toxic mine water is 550 metres below Johannesburg, but it is rising by at least 0.35 metres a day - possibly up to a metre a day - and could reach a critical level within the next 15 months. Officials have acknowledged that the rising water could begin to trigger sinkholes and earth tremors if it reaches within 150 metres of the surface.

The implications, according to environmentalists, are like something out of a disaster movie. The acidic water could corrode the foundations of Johannesburg's buildings, eating away at the steel and causing buildings to collapse. Small earthquakes could be triggered as water flows into cracks in the earth. Drinking water could be contaminated. Rivers and wildlife reserves could be endangered. Huge sinkholes could be created. Drainage from old uranium mines could cause radioactivity in the water supply. Human health could be damaged.

More than a century after the first gold boom, South Africa's miners are digging deeper and deeper to find the remaining bits of gold in their waning industry. Some of their mine shafts now extend nearly four kilometres below the earth's surface - the deepest in the world. As the minerals disappear, thousands of mines have been abandoned by their owners, leaving the government to struggle with the drainage threat.

Acid mine drainage is a phenomenon that begins when rising groundwater floods into old mine shafts and tunnels. During mining operations, this water is normally pumped out. But when the mines are abandoned, there is nothing to stop the water from flooding through the mine shafts. This water causes an oxidation of metal sulfides in pyrite in the surrounding rock, and the resulting product is a highly acidic water - often filled with toxic heavy metals - that decants toward the surface as the mine shafts become deluged.

Johannesburg is particularly vulnerable because there are millions of cubic metres of water in the natural aquifers below the city. The clean water is now becoming contaminated by the toxic mine water as it rises.

Already the toxic water has bubbled to the surface in rural areas near Johannesburg, polluting rivers and ponds. In the Krugersdorp wildlife reserve, two hippos are believed to be slowly going blind because of acidic and toxic water in their pond, contaminated from an old mine shaft.

Mine water could also threaten the famed Cradle of Humankind, the ancient caves near Johannesburg that contain fossil evidence of one of the birthplaces of the human species.

As a short-term measure to protect Johannesburg, the city is planning to spend more than $30-million on pumping stations so that any flood of mine water can be pumped away. But critics say the government has been too indecisive and slow to act. "Up until now, there's only been crisis management," said Mariette Liefferink, a South African environmental researcher who has become an outspoken campaigner on acid mine drainage.

"The government is merely lulling the public into complacency and apathy," she said in an interview. "That failure to make a decision could lead to disaster."

Lance Greyling, an opposition MP in the South African Parliament, has warned that millions of litres of acid mine water are already flowing into wetlands and rural areas near Johannesburg. He said it is an "environmental crisis" that the government is neglecting.

In Canada, unlike South Africa, there has been co-operation between governments and the mining industry to prevent a catastrophe from acid mine drainage, Ms. Liefferink said. She attended a conference on acid mine drainage in Nova Scotia last week and was impressed by the Canadian response. But if anyone in Canada is tempted to slacken their efforts against the acid mine water, they only need to look at South Africa to see the potentially disastrous consequences, she said.

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