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Where poison water seeps through the earth

Written by  Friday, 02 April 2010 02:00
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Mariette Liefferink calls it the smell of death. And after all the years she has spent fighting mining pollution, the environmental activist doesn’t even gag at the strong stench of sulphur wafting from the old mining shaft behind her.


“It’s the smell of death because this acid mine drainage (AMD) causes death to aquatic life”, says Liefferink, gesturing at the source of the overpowering sulphuric stench: a toxic waterfall in Randfontein from which thousands of litres of untreated mine water, carrying dangerous heavy metals and uranium, started gushing this week.

“It’s been proven. It’s not fanciful opinion. It seeps into your soil, causes the loss of agriculture potential and releases heavy metals that are toxic and radioactive, into the environment.”

This is the newest environmental disaster to strike the West Rand, scarred by more than a century of mining. Here AMD first started bubbling to the surface in 2002, on land now owned by Rand Uranium. As then, the new deluge of contaminated water is flowing into the already poisoned Tweelopies Spruit. Ultimately, it will reach the Limpopo and Vaal river systems, threatening ancient fossil sites in its path.

Liefferink, chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, reserves her blame for the government and mining companies who have done little to stem the toxic tide. “We did all the presentations to its task team (on mine closure), lobbied in parliament but the government did not come to the party.”

AMD is the highly toxic and radioactive water leaching from the underground voids of abaondoned and closed mines. As gold mines have ceased operations, the water table has returned to pre-mining levels, bringing with it rising water with a low pH, which is tainted by salts and elevated heavy metals.

Since the 20002 decant, around 15 megalitres of AMD has decanted daily into rivers, polluting the boreholes of downstream users, she says.

The government ordered mining groups DRD Gold, Rand Uranium and Mintails to halt the surface flow of this acidic water by pumping it out and treating it before discharging it into nearby streams and rivers. But DRD Gold, accountable for 44 percent of the polluted load, stopped pumping about a year ago and insists it is accountable only for 2 percent. Rand Uranium, tasked with a 46 percent share of the problem, can no longer cope with the huge volumes.

“It’s a hopeless situation that’s resulted in an irreversible environmental catastrophe,” says Liefferink. “Underground, an unqualified volume of untreated AMD is flowing into the Zwartkrans compartment, which hosts the Cradle of Humankind.”

Liefferink is a glamorous 57-year-old grandmother; draped in a delicately-embroidered outfit. In these desolate surroundings, she seems almost incongruous.

As usual, she is trudging through the dumps in high heels. “I must be the laughing stock. But I‘ve never fallen once,” she beams, proudly.

Fake earrings dangle from her ears – she boycotts gold. “It would be immoral for me to wear gold. It’s dirty. All those costs from mining have been externalized onto society and the environment.”

The Witwatersrand, home to the world’s biggest gold and uranium mining basin, is where mining operations have “raped the earth for its gold and uranium, left beind gaping holes in the ground, polluted river sources and disrupted and left unenriched communities”, she says.

AMD is its most harmful legacy.

“The decant in 2002 was untreated for several years. It caused a depletion of dolomite in tow and half years 0 under nuormal circumstances, this would’ve taken millions of years.”

Present mining companies, though, seem resentful they have to foot the bill for a historical problem they did not cereate.

Rand Uranium’s Sarel Keller says it spends about R2 million a month pumping and partially treating the acidic water.

Although the company is no involved in “last-ditch attempts to tkeep the water at bay”, it’s fighting a losing battle, says Liefferink. “The problem is that now they (Rand Uranium) will face liabilities (from downstream water users) but they’ve been pumping their share.

“DRD and the government must subsidise now because this is a disaster. It was a disaster in the happening that has now become palpable. You can touch it, see it and smell it.”

Keller, an environmental manager, hopes lessons can be learned from the AMD decants on the West Rand to prevent the AMD decants expected to arise from the central and eastern mining basins within the next two years, which will be catastrophic, according to experts.

Rand Uranium is now forced to pump even more AMD into the nearby Robinson Lake, where the levels of radioactive uranium are 40 000 times higher than normal. This is the source of the Tweelopies Spruit, flowing into the Krugersdorp Game Reserve, where reports have spotlighted miscarriages and high mortality among wildlife.

Liefferink is worried the decant will also affect eh heavily-mined Wonderfonteinspruit catchment, which flows between Randfontein and Potchefstroom, and is significantly contaminated with heavy metal and radioactive contamination.

“We’re sitting on a time bomb. At the Wonderfonteinspruit, all reports show there are elevated heavy metals in the sediment, like cadmium, cobalt, and uranium. Now with the AMD seeping in, it will mobilize and (make soluble) the heavy metals.

“The end water users are Potchefstroom. These are people who don’t have Rand Water and depend on the Wonderfonteinspruit as a clean water source. People dependent on stream water, river water or boreholes are severely affected.”

She points out a farm, bordering Rand Uranium close to Robinso Lake, where livestock and horses were farmed. But when an AMD spill struck the land about a year ago, up to 100 of the farmer’s animals died, mostly the newborn and young. The horses breathed in the mining dust as they exercised too.

Today, the signs advertising his business are already turning to rust. “He was eventually made an offer by the mine”, Liefferink explains. “We had the water analysed for toxic metals and it was found unfit for human and animal consumption. That’s another problem because the onus for the burden of proof is on the landowners and that is almost always impossible.

Nearby, the wind blows eerily through Amberfield Estate, a multi-million rand luxury development funded by Standard Bank. A huge tailings dam operated by Rand Uranium looms over the Tuscan-style development, which now resembles a ghost-town after Liefferink stopped it in its tracks last year. Its manicured lawns are overgrown.

“It was built on mined land within the 500 m buffer zone of a tailings dam. That is inappropriate development.

“These poor people (the elderly buyers) had no knowledge it was on radioactive land. There was no risk assessment or environmental impact assessment done. The developer is no bankrupt.”

On dry, windy days, the area is covered in a blanket of fine dust that tests have found spreads as far as Tasmania.

Groups like Earthlife Africa Johannesburg question whether mining companies should offer a public apology for the environmental and social damage of the past and are toying with the concept of reparations to affected communities.

To overcome AMD, the area’s mining groups, including DRD Gold are pinning their hopes on the R2 billion solution proposed by the Western Utilities Corporation (WUC), an entity they created to treat AMD to a potable and drinking water standard. WUC hopes to be online in 2012, pledging it will comply with water quality standards.

DRD Gold spokesman James Duncan, says “While everyone is saying x and y amount is your responsibility, no one is seeing the wood for the trees. Here we have the long-term solution, but every time we turn around, there’s another top expert with an alternative.”

Critics include water researcher Professor Anthony Turton, who believes several other technically viable alternatives exist. “None have been given a chance to present their case to a decision-maker in a transparent way”, he contends.

“International best practice in the management of hazardous waste dictates that all toxic waste streams should be kept separate and treated at source. WUC brings these waste streams together, cascading radioactivity from the Western Basin, where the levels are high, into the Central Basin, where the levels are much lower.”

“The public has not been consulted and will be forced to buy water treated by the most rudimentary of all processes. Remember, we’re talking of hazardous radioactive waste being turned into drinking water. The mines created the problem and now they want to walk away from it with no possibility of future liability”, Turton worries.

But a solution is needed urgently, Liefferink believes. “We’re looking for a sustainable solution with immediate implementation because it’s unfair and unethical for downstream users and an ecology which has no voice, to suffer these impacts while commercial companies are debating.”

The Department of Water Affairs told the Saturday Star it would release a statement on AMD next week.

There is a sense of resignation about Liefferink. “It’s like a road that is driven over and over by a wagon. You become hardened and desensitized…the files I’ve written on AMD, the letters I’ve sent – it must be thousands – and only Marius Keet (regional director of the Department of Water Affairs) has ever responded… If this is how the government handles environmental crises, it will lose its legitimacy.”

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SATURDAY STAR | 19 APRIL 2019, 7:41PM | SHEREE BEGA Picture:Yvette Descham On August 13 2013, Billy M heard gunshots at the gate of his house. He didn't know who fired the gun, and, worried that local traditional leadership might be involved, he didn't report the incident to the police. For the next five years, the community activist from Fuleni, a small rural village in KwaZulu-Natal bordering one of SA's oldest and largest wilderness areas, the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, continued to receive threats.  "We know our lives are in danger. This is part of the struggle," he says, simply. Billy M's account is contained in a new report released this week, 'We know Our  Lives Are in Danger’: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, which documents how community activists in mining areas face harassment, intimidation and violence. The report details how in Billy M's case, mining company Ibutho Coal had applied for rights to develop a coal mine in Fuleni in 2013. The development would have required the relocation of hundreds of people from their homes and farmland and destroy graveyards. "The mine's environmental impact assessment estimated that more than 6000 people living in the Fuleni area would be impacted. Blasting vibration, dust, and floodlights, too, could harm the community," says the report."During the environmental consultation processes, Billy M led opposition that culminated in a protest by community members in April 2016."The company reportedly abandoned the project in 2016 while another firm, Imvukuzane Resources is reportedly interested in mining in the area.The 74-page report, compiled by Human Rights Watch, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), groundWork, and Earthjustice, describes a system designed to "deter and penalise" mining opponents.The authors conducted interviews with more than 100 activists, community leaders, environmental groups, lawyers representing activists, police and municipal officials, describing the targeting of community rights defenders in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northwest, and Eastern Cape between 2013 and 2018. They report intimidation, violence, damage to property, the use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest for their activities in highlighting the negative impacts of mining projects on their communities. "The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilise to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants," write the authors."Women often play a leading role in voicing these concerns, making them potential targets for harassment and attacks."But municipalities often impose barriers to protest on organisers that have no legal basis while government officials have failed to adequately investigate allegations of abuse."Some mining companies resort to frivolous lawsuits and social media campaigns to further curb opposition to their projects.  The government has a Constitutional obligation to protect activists," write the authors. Picture: Shayne Robinson, Section 27 Authorities should address the environmental and health concerns related to mining "instead of harassing the activists voicing these concerns,” remarks Matome Kapa, attorney at the CER.The report starts with the high-profile murder of activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, who was killed at his home after receiving anonymous death threats in 2016. Rhadebe was the chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), a community-based organisation formed in 2007 to oppose mining activity in Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape.  "Members of his community had been raising concerns that the titanium mine that Australian company Mineral Commodities Ltd proposed to develop on South Africa’s Wild Coast would displace the community and destroy their environment, traditions, and livelihoods. More than three years later, the police have not identified any suspects in his killing."Nonhle Mbuthuma, another Xolobeni community leader and spokesperson of the ACC, has also faced harassment and death threats from unidentified individuals. "I know I am on the hit list.… If I am dying for the truth, then I am dying for a good cause. I am not turning back," she says.But other mining areas have had experiences similar to that of Xolobeni. "While Bazooka’s murder and the threats against Nonhle have received domestic and international attention, many attacks on activists have gone unreported or unnoticed both within and outside the  country."This is, in part, because of "fear of retaliation for speaking out, and because police sometimes do not investigate the attacks", the authors found.The origin of these attacks or threats are often unknown. "So are the perpetrators, but activists believe they may have been facilitated by police, government officials, private security providers, or others apparently acting on behalf of mining companies. "Threats and intimidation by other community members against activists often stem from a belief that activists are preventing or undermining an economically-beneficial mining project. In some cases, government officials or representatives of companies deliberately drive and exploit  these community divisions, seeking to isolate and stigmatize those opposing the mine."The Minerals Council South Africa, which represents 77 mining companies, including some in the research areas, responded that it “is not aware of any threats or attacks against community rights defenders where (its) members operate”.The authors state that while the mining sector and the government emphasise how mining is essential for economic development, "they fail to acknowledge that mining comes at a high environmental and social cost, and often takes place without adequate consultation with,or consent of, local communities".The absence of effective government oversight means that mining activities have harmed the rights of communities across South Africa in various ways. "Such activities have depleted water supplies, polluted the air, soil, and water, and destroyed arable land and ecosystems."Researchers also documented cases of police misconduct, arbitrary arrest, and excessive use of force during protests in mining-affected communities, "which is part of a larger pattern in South Africa".Last year, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at Wits University documented various efforts by traditional authorities to stifle opposition to mines in their communities. "In some cases, traditional authorities label those opposing mines as anti-development and troublemakers, thus alienating and stigmatising them.As a result, community members are often afraid to speak out against a mine in open consultations," CALS found.Research by the SA Human Rights Commission, too, has found that community members sometimes “are afraid to openly oppose the mine for fear of intimidation or unfavourable treatment (by the Traditional Authority)."The SAHRC says many mining-affected communities are experiencing “the creation of tension and division within communities as a result of mining operations.Sometimes, threats and intimidation against activists come from community members who have been promised economic benefit from the proposed project or are politically allied with the government or traditional authority."Local communities often do not benefit from mining activities, says the report. "Although South African law requires the development of social and labour plans (SLPs) that establish binding commitments by mining companies to benefit communities and mine workers, CALS has documented significant flaws in the development and implementation of SLPs."Despite the environmental and social costs of mining, the government is not adequately enforcing relevant environmental standards and mining regulations throughout South Africa. The SAHRC has found that the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) often fails to hold mining companies accountable, "imposing few or no consequences for unlawful activities and therefore shifting the costs of pollution to local communities."Compliance with regulatory obligations, as well as monitoring and enforcement of such responsibilities, remains a crucial concern in the context of mining activities," says the SAHRC, noting how the DMR and other governmental agencies often do not respond to complaints filed against mines by community members.The report's authors describe how the lack of government action and oversight has also helped make the mining industry one of the least transparent industries in South Africa. Information that communities require to understand the impacts of mines and to hold mining companies accountable for harmful activities is often not publicly available. "Such information includes environmental authorisations, environmental management programs, waste management licences, atmospheric emission licences, mining rights, mining work programmes, social and labour plans, or compliance and enforcement information."The only way to access such information is through a request under South Africa’s access to information law, a procedure that the World Health Organisation has called 'seriously flawed' and which the DMR regularly flouts. In addition, mining companies and the government rarely consult meaningfully with communities during the mining approval process, resulting in uninformed and poor government and industry decisions that do not reflect community perspectives or have their support," says the report.The authors assert how the threats, attacks, and other forms of intimidation against community rights defenders and environmental groups have created an environment of fear "that prevents mining opponents from exercising their rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and undermines their ability to defend themselves from the threats of mining".In its November 2018 review of South Africa’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed concern about “reports of human rights defenders, particularly those working to promote and defend the rights under the Covenant in the mining and environmental sectors, being threatened and harassed". It recommended that South Africa provide a safe and favourable environment for the work of human rights defenders to promote and protect economic, social, and cultural rights, including by "ensuring that all reported cases of intimidation, harassment, and violence against human rights defenders are promptly and thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice". Mining activist Mariette Liefferink, who made submissions to the UN committee, tells how it has become increasingly difficult to work as an environmental rights defender in South Africa.   "There is an overwhelming body of evidence of intimidation, whether it is by means of frontal attacks or more insidious attacks on activists."International and South African law requires South Africa to guarantee the rights of all people to life, security, freedoms of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and the rights to health and a healthy environment, say the authors."The attacks, threats, and obstacles to peaceful protest described in this report prevent many community activists in South Africa from exercising these rights to oppose or raise concerns about mines, in violation of South Africa’s obligations." 

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