MAC: Mines and Communities

Rains bring South African acid mine spillage closer

Published by MAC on 2011-01-25
Source: The Times (South Africa) (2011-01-17)

It's not only in Australia that recent floods threaten to trigger the release of toxic heavy metals from flooded mines.

Nor is Australia the only country where links have been drawn between the deluges and global greenhouse gas emissions. See: As storm clouds break, London Calling gets biblical

Rains, now striking South Africa's Gauteng region, could compound much further what is already the worst environmental crisis facing the country.

This is the potential overflow of millions of gallons of acid-laced waters from the province's former gold mines. See: Rising waters, mounting fears, flow from South Africa's mining legacy

After declaring a state of disaster in 28 municipalities in seven provinces, a South African government minister is quoted as squarely blaming the "freak weather" on adverse climate change.

Rains bring acid mine spillage closer

Underground water levels in Gauteng rising much faster

By Sipho Masondo, Charl du Plessis, Harriet McLEA and SAPA

The Times (South Africa)

17 January 2011

Acid mine drainage - the ticking time bomb beneath the country's richest province - might now spill out onto the surface months earlier than expected due to the heavy rains.

The deluge and accompanying freak weather, which have killed 40 people and displaced more than 6000 in recent weeks, is also raising levels of toxic water in Gauteng's mines, much of which cannot be pumped out fast enough.

At the Aurora Empowerment Systems Grootvlei mine in Springs, east of Johannesburg, only two functioning pumps, which suck the poisonous water from the underground workings, are themselves expected to be flooded in less than two weeks.

Aurora is the only miner pumping polluted water from Gauteng's eastern basin. If those two pumps fail as a result of flooding, all mines in the area, which are connected to each other, will be flooded, and their gold reserves will be unreachable.

Aurora foreman Derrick Souden said the rains dramatically elevated the water level, which was rising at a rate of 40cm a day - almost seven times its usual rate.

"Things are getting critical. We have 8m before the water runs down and floods the pump station. We are currently pumping 22 megalitres per day, and we should be pumping about 100 megalitres per day," he said.

"Once it starts flooding, the mine is finished. The only thing that will save the situation is millions and millions of rands. It is almost too late to save the situation, in my opinion."

Aurora Empowerment Systems director Thulani Ngubane said he would meet mine bosses today to decide what to do.

Water levels in Gauteng's Central Basin, which includes mines under Johannesburg, are rising at 50cm a day - up from 35cm before the rains.

If left unchecked, the Central Rand Gold Mine's lower levels will flood in about six months, rendering the only active gold mine in the area useless.

The underground museum at Gold Reef City would be next to go, in about 18 months, said water expert and academic Anthony Turton, who previously predicted toxic water would surface in Gauteng towards the end of next year.

Department of Water Affairs spokesman Themba Khumalo said the department was "aware" of the situation. "We know this is a potential for a disaster."

He said the interministerial committee appointed last year to address acid mine water issues would table a report to parliament in the "next few days. Cabinet will have to decide the way forward," he said.

If it reaches the surface, acidic mine water is expected to erode the steel and concrete foundations of high-rise Johannesburg buildings. Crops irrigated with it will die. Drinking water could be compromised if not treated properly.

With more rain expected this week, South Africa is counting the cost of the floods, with R20-million in household claims submitted to one insurer.

Co-operative Governance Minister Sicelo Shiceka announced yesterday that a state of disaster would be declared in 28 municipalities in seven provinces, including Gauteng's three metros, Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni.

Shiceka said flood-related damage was estimated at R356-million in three provinces. Assessments were being conducted in others.

"In terms of infrastructural damage, reports received so far from the Northern Cape, North West and KwaZulu-Natal provinces indicate estimated damage to the tune of R50-million, R6-million and R300-million respectively," he said.

The National Disaster Management Centre said that more than 6000 people around the country were displaced by the floods and other natural disasters since the middle of last month and 40 people lost their lives.

While Shiceka has blamed the heavy rains on climate change, the manager of the climate-change programme at WWF-SA, Richard Worthington, said he could not say for sure whether the recent heavy rains were a result of global warming.

"The recent weather events tend to bear out trends of global warming activities," he said. "However, it may not be direct evidence. It does appear as an over-stimulation of the weather system as a result of greenhouse gases," he said.

Agri-SA said yesterday that farmers in all seven "disaster" provinces had been affected by the flooding. The organisation's economist, Dawie Maree, said: "The main areas of concern are along the Vaal and Orange rivers.

"Grain farmers in Gauteng, Free State, Mpumalanga and North West have been affected, and in the Northern Cape grape farmers have also been hit by the flooding."

Shiceka's spokesman, Vuyelwa Qinga, said declaring the municipal areas in the seven provinces disaster areas would enable them to apply for relief funds from the national Treasury.

But as part of a longer-term solution to problems associated with climate change, she said an interministerial committee would seek advice from the SA Weather Service, SA National Space Agency as well as foreign governments and organisations on how to monitor weather patterns and come up with early warning systems.

Sedick Isaacs, general manager of claims at insurance company Mutual & Federal, said: "We registered in excess of R20-million in flood claims. That's a lot of money we're talking about. In the past two to three weeks we've registered about 1200 claims."

Isaacs said that the claims were mainly from private individuals and not from businesses.

Viviene Pearson, general manager of the SA Insurance Association, said it had received a number of reports from member insurers, saying that they had been "experiencing increases in claims related to the weather".

And yet more rain is on the way.

Weather Service forecaster Puseletso Mofokeng said: "We still expect rainfall to continue over central and eastern parts of South Africa throughout this month."

Mofokeng said rain would continue for the next week over the eastern and central regions, with a brief break from Wednesday to about Friday.

But heavy rain was only expected over the Lowveld, including Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

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