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Govt prioritises fight against acid mine water in Gauteng

Monday, 20 June 2016 10:37
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JOHANNESBURG ( – Government’s acknowledgment of the severity of acid mine drainage (AMD) in the Witwatersrand, Gauteng, and the subsequent priority given to taking steps to alleviate the problem are of “significant importance”, states Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE) CEO Mariette Liefferink.

After years of numerous mines having decanted, or verged on the precipice of decanting acid mine water, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) has taken strategic steps with the allocation of funds and plans to tackle the issue of acid mine water poisoning water courses throughout South Africa.

Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane announced in May that a yearly allocation of R600-million will be committed to directly address the AMD issue. The budget will come from the National Treasury. The announcement was made at the South West Vertical Shaft, in the Central basin, in Germiston, where the DWS hosted industry experts, together with the implementing agent, the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority.

Mokonyane says the solution “promises to simultaneously augment water supply to the nation’s economic hub of the Gauteng region”, adding that the long-term intervention will, therefore, turn the AMD problem into a long-term sustainable solution by producing fully treated water that will significantly increase water supply to the Vaal river system and defer the need for further costly augmentation beyond Phase 2 of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) for “at least another 30 years”.

The solution proposed by the DWS pivots on turning a polluted resource, which is “considered with contempt”, into a commodity that can assist in making more water resources from the Vaal river system available. Further, with the support of the National Treasury, the DWS has decided to cap the contributions of water users at only 33% of the cost of the project to address the AMD issue. The intention of government is to recover the balance of 67% from the mines through a proposed environmental levy.

In the interim, however, prior to the implementation of the policy and associated consultations, government will cover the anticipated costs. Almost 1 000 short- and long-term jobs have been created through the solution, which started implementation in 2014. AMD is a growing issue, stemming from underground mining operations as far back as when commercial-scale mining began in South Africa.


Liefferink tells Mining Weekly that AMD has been a well-known problem since 1903 and reached critical levels when it started decanting from the Western basin in 2002. This decanting was subsequently halted in 2012 when the DWS intervened and deployed dewatering equipment to treat AMD decanting from within the mines and prevent further decanting as part of a short-term strategy.

“In July 2013, the feasibility studies for the long-term treatment of AMD . . . were finalised at a cost of R25-million,” she says, adding, however, that officials of the DWS were pressured into accelerating their efforts into concluding the findings of the study. The study included determining the feasibility of available technologies and apportionment of liability. At the moment, treatment of AMD is active in the Western and Central basins.

The DWS issued a statement in April, claiming treatment works for AMD in the Eastern basin were ready to go into operation. Liefferink notes, however, that, pending environmental assessments on the sludge generated by this plant, the treatment works will only be fully operational in 2020. In addition, the treatment of AMD at the plant in the Eastern basin only deals with the neutralisation of AMD and not further purification and the removal of salts, according to Liefferink.

She says government’s recent acknowledgement of the severity of the situation is heartening, adding that there are still many gaps in the available information and many uncertainties as to how to further treat AMD so that it can be released into water courses and potentially be used by the agriculture industry and also be converted into potable water for domestic consumption. The first major issue, she says, concerns the reconciliation strategies for the integrated Vaal river system, as the system currently suffers from a growing number of deficiencies.

Even with the introduction of more volumes of water from the LHWP’s Phase 1, Liefferink says, treated AMD will still be required to contribute to resolving deficiencies in the Vaal river system. Further, she notes that, according to a recent statement by Mokonyane, there are plans to introduce desalination plants to treat AMD by 2020, thereby enabling fully- treated AMD to be fed into natural water courses and used downstream by the agriculture industry or to be purified as a potable water supply by a municipal entity or water utility Rand Water.

However, any desalination of sulphate-rich AMD is being delayed, owing to the State’s failure to proactively and timeously conduct an environmental-impact assessment. This will be followed by the construction of another treatment plant, which Liefferink presumes will use reverse osmosis technology. “During the period [leading up to the plant’s commissioning], it is hoped there will be no water restrictions, or poor water quality because of the continued discharge of highly saline water into the Vaal river system. These potential risks can only be mitigated by releasing water from the Vaal dam and a deficit in the upper regions of the Vaal river, which could have severe economic impacts,” she says.

Liefferink points out that, in the Eastern basin, as a result of the Aurora mine ceasing the pumping of water that accumulated in the mine, no water has been released into the Vaal river system. However, with the implementation of the short-term AMD solution in the Eastern basin, a significant volume of salt-rich water is expected to be added to the Vaal river system. The salinity issue is significant, she points out. Treated AMD water released from mines, but without the removal of sulphates, has been recorded as having sulphate levels as high as 3 000 mg/ℓ, with more than 100 Mℓ of water a day to be pumped from the Eastern basin. Such a salt-rich water resource could have drastic impacts on the agriculture industry. For example, water with a salinity of more than 250 mg/ℓ of sulphate has resulted in lower fertility rates in cattle, as it suppresses copper and selenium. Irrigation of crops will also be affected by increased costs, owing to farmers having to use alternative methods for removing salts, which will increase the rate of corrosion of metal fittings in water distribution systems.

Further, Liefferink says that even State- owned power utility Eskom will be significantly affected, as the utility draws water from rivers and dams to use in the cooling towers at its power stations. “Eskom’s requirements for water are between 15 mg/ℓ and 40 mg/ℓ of sulphate.” The international acceptable level of salt in drinking water is 200 mg/ℓ of sulphate, she says, adding that this will require Rand Water to desalinate a sulphate-rich water resource at an additional cost, thereby impacting on rate- payers’ pockets.

Besides treating AMD water in a desalination plant to remove salts, another possible solution is running treated AMD through a large body of water, such as the LHWP. However, Liefferink says it is the considered opinion of the FSE that pollution should be treated at its source. “It is unrealistic to use very expensive water of very good quality (referring to water of the LHWP) to simply dilute a water resource that is highly saline.” She adds that greater public consultation is required to ensure overall treatment of AMD is undertaken in a transparent and inclusive manner. Liefferink asserts that one of the biggest challenges with resolving the AMD issue is the apportionment of liability and holding guilty parties to account for remediation and rehabilitation activities. She suggests that, while it may be easy to point out responsible agents, such as mine owners, managers, executive directors and even shareholders, it is not always as easy to hold them all to account, as certain mines no longer formally exist after having been closed, liquidated or placed under business rescue.

Note:  this is an extract from the comprehensive article on


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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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