MAC/20: Mines and Communities

SA acid mine water crisis: Ecological mine disaster expected

Published by MAC on 2012-04-18
Source: Fin24

For previous article on MAC, see: South Africa: Companies Profit from Toxic Water

SA acid mine water crisis: Ecological mine disaster expected

By Jan de Lange


1 April 2012

Johannesburg - An ecological disaster of massive proportions is imminent in the Vaal River system because of the decision years ago not to implement the mining industry's proposal for the treatment of acid mine drainage.

Government's own emergency plan to treat the acid water has resulted in the equivalent of 140 tonnes of salts being discharged into these rivers each day because of the decision to dump neutralised but sulphate-rich water into the rivers of the Western Basin.

Currently 30 megalitres of this water is being discharged into rivers every day, but the plan is to double this in order to bring down the level of underground acid mine water.

These disturbing figures have been researched by the Federation for a Sustainable Environment. A similar plant is planned for the central basin before the rising underground water can surface.

The tragedy is that it would have been entirely unnecessary had the 2009 proposals by the Western Utilities Corporation (WUC) been accepted and implemented. Incisive questions are now being asked as to why that was not done.

The magnitude of the tragedy will strike us only in two or three years' time, a water industry role player told Sake24 early last week.

The WUC proposal - to pump out the acid mine water discharge and purify it into drinking water using a revolutionary chemical technology developed by the CSIR - was presented in a written directive from the Department of Water Affairs served on James Munro, chief executive of Rand Uranium on July 24 2009.

It was however applicable to all the gold and uranium producers on the West Rand: Rand Uranium, Mintails and DRDGold.

Sake24 is in possession of a copy of the directive to Munro.

The gold producers however expected this and had, several years previously, following a similar directive in the Klerksdorp-Orkney-Stilfontein region, begun to work on a solution for the Western and Central Basin on the Witwatersrand.

A comprehensive public consultation process - which normally considerably prolongs such projects - took place.

When the mining groups presented it, financed by foreign investors, everyone was very impressed. A listed British company, Watermark, was the shareholder. All government departments involved agreed that this was the correct route to follow.

But a couple of months later, out of the blue, the WUC proposal was accused of being an "unsolicited bid" from a discredited industry.

WUC was not even officially informed that its proposal would not be used, despite it having been a direct order from the Department of Water Affairs and having cost R70m of foreign investors' money to prepare.

"We would very much like to have an explanation of why this was not effected," Mariette Liefferink, who chairs the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, said to Sake24 on Friday. At the time the Federation was highly involved.

The seriousness of the situation became evident two weeks ago during an investigation by the Human Rights Commission which revealed that 160m megalitres of sulphate-rich water, with a salinity of about 2 500mg/litre, will eventually land up in the river system each day.

The standard for human consumption is 600mg/litre. Janet Love, one of the commission's commissioners, proposed that alternative methods of desalination be sought urgently.

The wisdom of discharging the neutralised water, replete with salts, into the groundwater system is now being seriously questioned by environmental groups.

The neutralisation plants government is now hurriedly building in Randfontein and Germiston will neutralise the acid and remove most of the heavy metals, but the water will still contain 2 500mg of sulphates per litre - more than four times that considered safe for human consumption.

It is also becoming clear that the neutralisation plants will not be ready in time to entirely prevent the outflow of acid mine water.

It was previously predicted that the outflow would start in January this year, but lower than usual rainfall reduced the pace at which the water level in the Central Basin was rising.

According to a report by the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA), government's agency for implementing the emergency measures now being effected, it would appear that years of water restrictions will need to be introduced for consumers of water in the Upper Vaal system after 2014.

More water will have to be released from the system to dilute the salinity in the rest of the Vaal River system, making less available for human consumption.

The only alternative is to relax water standards in the mid and lower Vaal districts, including the Klerksdorp-Orkney-Stilfontein-region.

The region extending from here to the Northern Cape and the Vaal-Gamagara scheme will then have exceptionally poor water quality - something that will impact poor people the most.

The water restrictions will negatively affect mining activity in six provinces. The TCTA report says that, unlike electricity which can be supplemented by backup generators when there are shortages, nothing can be done about water shortages.

Had the WUC proposal been implemented, the long-term effect would have been precisely the opposite. The total estimated acid mine water drainage in the Witwatersrand Basin is about 320 megalitres a day.

It would have eventually processed everything into drinking water for delivery to Rand Water. Rand Water produces around 3 500 megalitres water a day.

The available daily supply of drinking water for the entire Upper Vaal region would thus have increased by around 10%.

The tragedy

The tragedy is that it (the emergency plan) would have been totally unnecessary had the proposals by the Western Utilities Corporation (WUC) been accepted and implemented in 2009.

Searching questions are now being asked as to why this was not done.

The investigation

The investigation revealed that 160m megalitres of sulphate-rich water, with a salinity of about 2 500mg/litre, will eventually land in the river system every day.

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