Aurora mine’s toxic water crisis

The East Rand was an hour away from an environmental disaster this week, when acid mine water started to flood the Grootvlei mine owned by the embattled empowerment company, Aurora Empowerment Systems.

Workers angered by months of working without pay had downed tools, bringing the 10 pump stations at the mine to a standstill for the first time in 75 years.

The toxic water would have led to the contamination of the East Rand’s groundwater resources within three years and potentially caused sinkholes near Nigel and Springs.

Underground water must be pumped out continually for mining to continue. When it flows over the mined rocks, it becomes toxic.

General maintenance has not been conducted at the mine since March, when most Grootvlei workers went on strike over non-payment of wages and the mine’s insurance for their workers had also lapsed.

On Monday 100 remaining workers Grootvlei mine’s care and maintenance unit went on strike. The unit is responsible for pumping acid water out of Shaft 3 to prevent the flooding of the East Basin on the East Rand.

On Wednesday water began flooding the underground pump station room. With an hour to go until the station became inaccessible to workers, management pleaded with workers to return to work, offering them 25% of their May wages.

‘We decided to go back again, because it was the ethical thing to do,” said one employee. A small band of workers ventured down Shaft 3 again to restart pumping.

‘The mine is incredibly unsafe and basically a time bomb,” said Gideon du Plessis, Solidarity deputy general secretary. ‘The workers are on a suicide mission. They are true heroes for risking their lives.”

Michael Hulley, Aurora non-executive director, has promised in a letter that the worker’s full May salaries will be paid by June 21 and that third party insurance will be reinstated on June 16. Du Plessis said the workers would quit on June 21 if the latest promises were broken.


Khulubuse Zuma, President Jacob Zuma’s nephew, Hulley, Zuma’s lawyer, and Zondwa Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s grandson, feature on the Aurora board, giving the company heavy political clout.

Aurora has a management agreement with the liquidators to operate its East Rand and Orkney assets, after its bid to buy the liquidated Pamodzi mines was accepted. But the cashstrapped company had been running into trouble amid allegations of asset stripping, mismanagement and questionable financial transfers.

Aurora’s first investor withdrew, while a second investor will release funds only once it lists on the JSE. It is expected to do so only in August. This week a Chinese consortium put in a new bid of $51-million for the Pamodzi assets, but sources close to the deal are worried that there may soon be no mine to operate.

Environmental reports on the East Rand’s East Basin have warned of acid water bubbling into the street of Nigel and Springs within three years and destroying the East Rand’s groundwater resources.

The Vaal River barrage could also be at risk. The Grootvlei pumps are the last operating in mostly abandoned mines on the East Rand and carry responsibility for all the East Basin’s acid mine water.

Marius Keet, deputy director of water quality management at the department of water affairs, said his department was extremely concerned about the situation at Grootvlei and would have to intervene if pumping ceased again.

‘Although it’s the mine’s responsibility to ensure that the pumps are all operational, the department will not allow the mine to flood the pumps as this will result in the flooding of the basin and subsequently the decanting of acid mine drainage,” he said.

‘Apart from the negative impact on the environment, sinkhole formation is not excluded.” He said Aurora would be held accountable for any future environmental disaster if pumping stopped. It already faces criminal charges for pumping acid water into the Blesbokspruit.

But Enver Motala, the Pamodzi liquidator, played down the pump station fiasco. ‘We had heard about the threats that the pump stations would be switched off, but Aurora assured us that pumping was continuing,” he said.

‘As far as we’re concerned, the situation is under control.” Thulani Ngubane, Aurora director and spokesperson, did not respond to questions.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald is a South African environmental reporter, particularly experienced in the investigative field. After 10 years at the Mail & Guardian, she signed on with City Press in 2011. Her investigative environmental features have been recognised with numerous national journalism awards. Her coverage revolves around climate change politics, land reform, polluting mines, and environmental health. The world’s journey to find a deal to address climate change has shaped her career to a great degree. Yolandi attended her first climate change conference in Montreal in 2005. In the last decade, she has been present at seven of the COP’s, including the all-important COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. South Africa’s own addiction to coal in the midst of these talks has featured prominently in her reports.
Advertising

Where is the deputy president?

David Mabuza is hard at work — it’s just not taking place in the public eye. The rumblings and discussion in the ANC are about factions in the ruling party, succession and ousting him

Zuma turns on judiciary as trial nears

Former president says pre-trial correspondence is part of another plot

High court declares Dudu Myeni delinquent

Disgraced former SAA chairperson Dudu Myeni has been declared a delinquent director by the...

SANDF inquiry clears soldiers of the death of Collins Khosa

The board of inquiry also found that it was Khosa and his brother-in-law Thabiso Muvhango who caused the altercation with the defence force members
Advertising

Press Releases

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

Openview, now powered by two million homes

The future of free-to-air satellite TV is celebrating having two million viewers by giving away two homes worth R2-million

Road to recovery for the tourism sector: The South African perspective

The best-case scenario is that South Africa's tourism sector’s recovery will only begin in earnest towards the end of this year

What Africa can learn from Cuba in combating the Covid-19 pandemic

Africa should abandon the neoliberal path to be able to deal with Covid-19 and other health system challenges likely to emerge in future

Coexisting with Covid-19: Saving lives and the economy in India

A staggered exit from the lockdown accompanied by stepped-up testing to cover every district is necessary for India right now

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday