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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.”