MAC: Mines and Communities

South Africa: Coal mining creates toxic crisis for country's rivers

Published by MAC on 2011-12-05
Source: Mining.com, Businesslive (2011-11-27)

Threats posed by acid drainage from abandoned gold and uranium mines have riveted the attention of South African citizens over the past year. See: Mining's toxic sludge threatens Johannesburg

Now, a new study reveals appallingly unacceptable high levels of heavy metals, caused by such acidity resulting from the country's coal mines.

New study says acid drainage from coal mines ‘devastating' South Africa's rivers

By Frik Els

Mining.com

27 November 2011

BusinessLive reports that while acid mine drainage from disused gold mines in the Johannesburg area of South Africa is well documented, according to a new study AMD from nearly 6,000 abandoned mines is acidifying rivers and streams, raising metals levels and killing fish.

The study by World Wide Fund for Nature SA and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research showed that South Africa's heavy dependence on coal for electricity had a "devastating" effect on the country's water resources, particularly in light of the fact that only 12% of the country's land area generated 50% of the country's river flow. The most affected river was the Olifants which flows through the Kruger National Park.

South Africa is the world's no. 5 coal exporter and according to the study there are nearly 6,000 abandoned mines in the country.

MingingWeekly reports prospecting rights for coal mining were being issued in the headwaters of sensitive catchments. Almost 25% of the 1.6-million hectare Enkangala grasslands and Olifants catchment - the focus of the study - was under threat with the ever-increasing demand for prospecting and mining rights in the area where coal mining dates back to the 1890s.

BusinessLive reports in 2001, mine water use in the Olifants river catchment amounted to an average 4.6%, but it contributed about 78% to the total sulphate load, affecting farmers, local residents in the catchment areas and tourists and the wildlife in the Kruger National Park, the report said.

MINING.com reported earlier this month 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.


Coal mines add to acid threat

Businesslive

26 November 2011

The long-term legacy of South Africa's reliance on coal-fired power is not only greater greenhouse gas emissions.

Acid mine drainage from coal mining also affects water resources: acidifying rivers and streams, raising metals levels and killing fish.

These are the findings of a new study by World Wide Fund for Nature SA (WWF-SA) and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

The study - titled Coal and Water Futures in South Africa: The Case for Conserving Water in the Enkangala Grasslands - focuses on coal mining in high water-yield areas such as the Enkangala grasslands region.

The report calls on the government to come up with a strategy to provide enough good-quality water.

Christine Colvin, senior manager for freshwater programmes at WWF-SA, said this was imperative as South Africa was already a water scarce country.

The country's resources were under increasing threat from climate change and growing demand, she said.

''We already cannot afford to fix up the legacy of nearly 6000 abandoned mines, which are polluting our environment. Let's plan now to mitigate high pollution costs for the next generation," Colvin said.

The report noted that in 2009 South Africa was the fourth-largest exporter of thermal coal.

During that year coal sales amounted to R65-billion, the highest-value commodity for the year when compared with platinum's R58-billion and gold's R49-billion.

About 64% of the coal sold domestically is bought by Eskom for use in energy production.

According to the report, the Olifants River is one of South Africa's most degraded rivers - affected by coal mines, agriculture, industry and sewage pollution.

Coal mining in its catchment area started in the 1890s.

By 2004 about 50000 m³ of mine water was discharged into the Olifants River every day, with about 64000 m³ a day flowing in from closed and abandoned mines.

In 2001, mine water use in the catchment amounted to an average 4.6%, but it contributed about 78% to the total sulphate load, affecting farmers, local residents in the catchment areas and tourists and the wildlife in the Kruger National Park, the report said.

The Witbank and Middelburg Dams on the Olifants started showing an increase in sulphate and TDS concentrations from as early as 1986, mainly as a result of increased coal-mining activities.

According to the report, just 12% of South Africa's land area generates 50% of the country's river flow.

This highlights the need to plan the development of landscapes to protect the country's most important water, soil and biodiversity resources.

Colvin said: ''Our already stressed water resources are under threat from coal mining operations located in important water-provisioning catchments.

"While many South Africans presently survive with limited or no access to energy, none can survive without water."

The report also indicated that between 2005 and last year about 13.7% of Mpumalanga was already under rights applications and 40.3% was under mining rights applications.

This meant that 54% of the province was under some form of planned mining activity.

The report identified a number of shortcomings around mining that pose risks for South Africa's water security.

They include weaknesses in the legislative process and cooperative governance, the decommissioning process, the application process and in enforcing regulations - and in particular in the environmental management plan application process.

''Communities who do not have access to piped and treated water supply and are therefore directly reliant on natural water resources are the most vulnerable and often voiceless," said the report.

"For this reason we urge the government to act now to prevent further degradation of our rivers and aquifers."

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