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To decant, or not to decant? That is the question

Written by  MARA KARDAS-NELSON - M&G Sunday, 14 November 2010 07:24
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Concerns that Johannesburg and the Cradle of Humankind will soon be flooded with acid mine drainage (AMD) have been central to discussions on polluted mine water for months, with the public being worked up into a frenzy about the CBD sinking and South Africa's heritage being wiped out.

While a media storm has been created around these predictions, fuelled by worried activists and a reactionary government, estimations of both sites flooding are not as concrete as one might think. Some scientists and government officials note that Johannesburg will with no uncertainty be the next target, advocating action, while others claim the city faces a very minimal threat. Similar opinions surround potential affects on the Cradle.

So, who's right?

The answer lies in a muddled pool of conflicting data. No one disagrees that both sites have been or will be affected in some way, but to what extent remains heavily debated.

Polluted water is indeed rising within Gauteng's Central Basin, which houses Johannesburg. It is currently 530m below the surface, increasing between 0,3 and 0,9m a day. While the Department of Water Affairs (DWA) originally estimated that water would hit the Jo'burg streets in early 2012, the current interministerial task team has reportedly pushed that date back on AMD to 2014.

The DWA has pegged the so-called environmentally critical level at 400m below the surface. That means that if the water rises above this, groundwater will be affected, decant inevitable, and the effects exponentially worse than if the water is kept at bay. Speaking to Agence France-Presse in July, the department's Marius Keet promised that pumping would take place so that "[AMD] will not decant in the city of Johannesburg".

According Gerrit van Tonder of the Institute for Groundwater Studies (IGS) at the University of the Free State, the suggestion to pump at 400m is based on "a wrong conceptual model used by [the Council for Geoscience (CGS)] ... the seriousness of the acidic mine water decanting at 57 mL [or 57-million litres] a day close to Boksburg is by far exaggerated and so are estimations about the poor quality of the water that will decant. I'm not saying it's not going to [happen], but it's not going to decant in February 2012. And it will be manageable."

The IGS estimates that water will not reach the surface until June 2014 at the earliest.

Pumping could in fact worsen the situation, said Van Tonder. "Pumping at a fixed level of 400m below Boksburg will create, (a) mixing, (b) water turbulence, (c) structural erosion and also (d) seismic activities," he explained. Pumping could "most probably cause serious earthquakes in the Central Rand ... All of this poses a problem much more serious than the supposed decanting of acid water."

Rather than removing water from the filling void, "you must get rid of the oxygen, and the way to get rid of oxygen is to fill up the mine", says van Tonder. Iron pyrite mixing with oxygen is a crucial part of the creation of acid mine drainage.

The institute noted that those who are in favour of pumping at 400m are "mostly non-hydro geologists", such as government officials, academics specialising in other fields, and activists, while those against the pumping are "mostly hydro geologists".

Van Tonder says that DWA and individual members of the task team have refused repeated requests to meet with the IGS.

Earthquakes have been sited as a potential impact of the basin filling, shaking building structures. According to mine consultant Garfield Krige, who predicted Gauteng's 2002 Western Basin decant, "it's known that when you fill up a basin, or anything that contains water ... there may be several nasty earthquakes because you're putting pressure on rocks that weren't under pressure".

"You will have earthquakes, but it's not comparable to [those] along a fault line," he continues. "In all likelihood it's going to be similar to the mining related tremors we used to have."

Additionally, Krige says, "there is theoretically a chance that the foundations of buildings could impacted, but it's not going to happen overnight. It's going to take tens, maybe hundreds of years".

Lesley Stoch of the North-West University at Potchefstroom was commissioned by Absa and Standard Bank to assess whether reports of their CBD buildings being affected were correct. According to his research, neither site is threatened. "The Central Basin is level, like a lake. Water will come out at the lowest point, which is not in the CBD," he says. "It might affect properties in the south of the city, which are lower ... but definitely not the CBD."

Where the decant occurs is of significant concern. According to Krige, "it's going to decant in the Klip River catchment, so the drainage is going to be towards the Vaal River, and the water will enter the Vaal Barrage dam." The Klip runs through Soweto, home to 1,3-million people, while 10-million users pull from the Vaal dam daily. Because of this, Central Basin decant "is going to be even more significant than the Western Basin," says Krige.

Figuring out exactly what will happen, and where it will happen, is made difficult by a lack of transparency and access to data, according to Frank Winde of North-West University at Potchefstroom. While the Department of Mineral Resources began looking at re-filling of empty voids years ago, this data is "currently embargoed by the [CSG], labeling the unfinished project "work in progress". That may put the CGS in an advantageous position for the current DWA tender on the issue. I also agree with Trevor Manuel that there are private interests at play in sensationalising the issue." In August, Manuel was quoted as saying that "private-sector interests" were driving debate on AMD, particularly in Johannesburg, and that a "rational debate" was needed to properly assess the situation, adding "the idea that there will be acid mine drainage running through the streets of Johannesburg next week, and that we should all walk around in gum boots, is completely ridiculous."

AMD in the Cradle: The devil is in the dolomite

Just as there are a flurry of questions over whether, when, and how Johannesburg will be aaffected by acid mine drainage , scientists are sparring regarding the Cradle of Humankind. While there is no denying that polluted mine water originating from the Western Basin decant has made its way into the World Heritage site, whether the caves have already been affected -- and to what extent they may be in the future -- is up for debate.

The large amount of dolomite housed within the Cradle is central to differing opinions. Dolomite is a type of rock commonly found across South Africa, and specifically Gauteng. "Dolomite is calcium carbonate, basically. It's easily soluble, and also holds huge volumes of water," explained Carin Bosman, former director of Water Resource Protection and Waste at the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. While dolomite already dissolves easily, "the acid dissolves [it] much faster."

Phil Hobbs of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, who has been assessing groundwater quality in the Cradle for over a year, noted that "acid mine drainage is only one of the threats to the area ... One of the other, bigger threats is treated waste water effluent out of the municipal waste water works."

Ironically, the mix of sewage water and acid mine drainage may in fact have a positive effect. Because of dilution, "to a certain extent the municipal waste water is helping to mitigate the impact of the ... mine water," Hobbs explained. In addition to the dilution effect, "nutrients [from the sewage] capture the metals [from AMD]... [these metals] help to coat and armour the dolomitic strata, in other words helping to protect it from further dilution, meaning that less dolomite will be dissolved."

Based on his data, "for the majority of the fossil sites [of which there are 14], there are only five that have a risk rating of moderate or higher ... most are all low to very low," Hobbs says. "One can never say never, but it is extremely unlikely that [the north and north east part of the Cradle] will ever be threatened by any source, be it AMD, be it anything else."

Krige notes that due to the large amount of limestone within dolomite, the rock helps to neutralise the water by raising the pH. But while that's "obviously a good thing because it purifies the water, just because it isn't polluted doesn't mean [the Cradle's] not impacted. For every mL of mine water that hits dolomite, about 300 litres of void is created…a lot of this…could be under the N14 road [connecting Pretoria to Springs]. There is a danger that this could collapse."

For Francois Durand of the University of Johannesburg, studying amphipods, or blind shrimp who live in the Cradle, demonstrates the effect of AMD on the natural environment. "As you approach the mines from the Cradle, the composition and the quantity of the insects in the water becomes impoverished," he says. "There are less and less and fewer and fewer, until you get to Robinson Lake [in the West Rand] where it's devoid of life."

Amphipods aren't the only organisms at risk. "If the surface water is compromised, the bats will die, and that will have an effect in the [cave] ecosystem as well, and things above ground will die," says Durand. "If both the ground and surface water are affected, the entire ecosystem will collapse." Amphipods also act as a key food source. "[Insects] that live on the banks of the rivers, actually take up heavy metals, so it is made accessible to the rest of the food web."

Amphipods are "endemic to Gauteng and Limpopo," he continues. "You don't get them anywhere else. If they disappear here, they disappear off the face of the earth."

While Durand says that the Cradle has not been heavily affected impacted yet, he suggests that the worse-case scenario must be protected against, given the importance of the site to South Africa's tourism industry and heritage. "I am a socialist ... with respect to our heritage. It belongs to everybody equally," he says, noting, "this isn't just South African heritage, this is world heritage."

This article made possible through funding from the Open Society Foundation for South Africa's Media Fellowship Programme

MARA KARDAS-NELSON - M&G

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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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