Mining's toxic sludge threatens Johannesburg
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Radioactive sludge seeping from hundreds of Johannesburg mines compared to Chernobyl
By Frik Els
13 November 2011
Soweto, Johannesburg - Thousands of people face evacuation from greater Johannesburg in the Gauteng province - the economic heartland of South Africa - due to toxic sludge from abandoned gold mines laced with high radiation levels.
Acid mine water, the result of groundwater flowing through underground shafts, is decanting from an old uranium mine and rising by half a metre a day beneath the city of 7 million people. Mass evacuation of informal settlements is one of several recommendations in a government-commissioned plan drafted in June to deal with 380 acid mine dumps - many of them radioactive.
Uranium is often mined as a byproduct of gold in South Africa and it is estimated that some 800 kilometres of tunnels exist underneath Gauteng left over from more than century of underground mining.
Business Times reported on Saturday a peer-reviewed report by Anthony Turton, a prominent South African water scientist, reveals that radiation levels at Tudor Shaft suggest that the country faces a localized environmental crisis that can be compared to Chernobyl.
The Mail & Guardian reported last week the acid mine drainage is coming back to burn the industry now. The mining companies have put together a R70 million ($9 million) project and appointed a cost-recovery company to solve the legacy problem and help provide extra potable water in the Gauteng province.
Johannesburg is one of the 40 largest metropolitan areas in the world, and is also the world's largest city not situated on a river, lake, or coastline. South Africa accounted for 12% of the world's gold production in 2005, though the nation had produced as much as 30% of world output as recently as 1993. Almost 50% of the world's gold reserves are found in South Africa according to the US Geological Survey.
The Top Star mine dump, shown here, was constructed from 1899 to 1939, reaching a height of 50 meters and containing 5.1 million metric tons of chemically processed mine waste. In the early 1960s, Top Star was converted into a drive-in movie theater, which showed movies until 2006, when it was shut down by DRD Gold to extract latent gold in the mine waste. The mine dump's dramatic height within Johannesburg's urban core offered spectacular views of the Central Business District.
Click here for a slide show and essay titled Ecologies of Gold: The Past and Future Mining Landscapes of Johannesburg.
Acid sludge poses a serious risk in Gauteng
Business Live (South Africa)
12 November 2011
Thousands of people face evacuation from Gauteng due to toxic sludge from abandoned gold mines laced with high radiation levels.
Emergency plans are being drawn up to stop toxic water flowing into Johannesburg.
Acid mine water, the result of groundwater flowing through underground shafts, is decanting from an old Rand Uranium mine near Krugersdorp and rising by half a metre a day beneath Johannesburg.
Government has yet to approve a plan to tackle the crisis, nearly a year after its own task team urged emergency intervention.
The delay has provoked criticism from civil society and private industry, who say government rejected a viable mine water treatment plan two years ago.
Mass evacuation of informal settlements is one of several recommendations in a government-commissioned strategy and implementation plan drafted in June to deal with 380 acid mine dumps - many of them radioactive - across Gauteng.
The report was sent to the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Reform.
National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) spokesman Gino Moonsamy confirmed that about 500 people were evacuated from the Tudor Shaft informal settlement near Kagiso, west of Johannesburg, due to radiation fears.
The regulator said radiation levels, however, did not pose a major health crisis.
Moonsamy said: "There is no immediate danger. Over long periods of time it is not ideal."
But recent scientific reports suggest otherwise. A peer-reviewed report by Anthony Turton, a prominent South African water scientist, reveals that radiation levels at Tudor Shaft suggest that the country faces a localised environmental crisis that can be compared to Chernobyl.
Government is adamant it is managing the problem, and points to a R225-million treasury allocation to treat acid mine water - the first tranche of an estimated R2-billion water treatment plan.
However, it has emerged that:
- Despite a November 2011 deadline to start a water-treatment plan, set by a government task team, the R225-million treasury allocation has yet to reach the parastatal mandated to implement the plan - the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA).
- Up to 43% of the R924-million requested by the TCTA for long-term water treatment will be spent on staff salaries, transport and accommodation - not on treating water - according to its own submission to parliament in September.
- Two underwater pumps purchased to help stem the tide under Johannesburg are still in pieces in Germany. The company providing them, Central Rand Gold - of which socialite Kenny Kunene is a former executive and shareholder - is in court fighting to retain its mining licence.
Environmentalist Mariette Liefferink said government appeared "overwhelmed' by the problem.
"It would appear that government is lulling the public into complacency. It is a money issue and it has become overwhelming. Now the issue is of such a magnitude that they don't know how to solve it," she said.