/ 26 November 2010

Aurora’s East Rand: The next target?

Over the last year, Aurora Empowerment Systems has garnered quite a bad reputation.

Headlines of unpaid miners matched with new BMWs for owners has pegged the leadership of Aurora, lead by Khulubuse Zuma and Zondwa Mandela, as the bad boys in mining. Some critics have even gone so far as to say the story of Aurora is indicative of the problems with BEE and Zuma’s government more generally, which they claim is marred by shortsighted business decisions, corruption, and ill-enforced regulations.

The affect of Aurora’s mismanagement goes beyond political shenanigans and unpaid workers. Financial trouble has lead the company’s Grootvlei operations to discharge millions of litres of partially treated or untreated mine water into the Blesbokspruit, situated on Gauteng’s East Rand. The spruit is Gauteng’s major wetland system, which eventually flows into the Vaal Barrage, one of South Africa’s largest and most important water catchments which is used by an estimated 12-million people.

Releasing untreated water is “very serious”, says Stan Madden, an East Rand resident and founder of the Marievale Bird Sanctuary, a Ramsar site situated on the Blesbokspruit. “There are high loads of salts, metals, [and] iron oxides, and this causes a lot of choking of animal and plant life. If this continues to be untreated, there’s going to be long-term, serious effects.”

Ramsar sites are considered protected wetlands of national or international importance. It is estimated that there are over 280 bird species in the sanctuary.

Head above water
Matthew Havinga, who lives 2km downstream from the Grootvlei operations, claims that the company was “not responsible in following the legislation, in reporting correctly, remediating the area, warning people in terms of what the potential impacts or hazards might be. It takes us saying ‘that’s not smelling right, the frogs are disappearing, there’s white precipitate flowing down the river’ for anything to even be acknowledged.”

Earlier this year, the Department of Water Affairs (DWA) issued a directive against Aurora, forcing them to pump and treat their water. In May, the department brought criminal charges against the company’s directors for failure to comply with the government directive as well as releasing water into a protected wetland. While Aurora should be pumping 108mL, or 108-million litres, of water every day, environmental activist Mariette Liefferink says the mine is only pumping 40mL/day.

As Aurora struggles to keep its head above water, environmental activists and community members are concerned that pumping and treating of polluted water may soon cease entirely, allowing massive flooding of underground mine shafts and further pollution. “If they stop pumping, then the basin will [flood],” explains Terrence McCarthy of the University of the Witwatersrand.

“Their pumping is absolutely essential.”

Much of the trouble stemming from the Aurora debacle can be traced to complicated issues of historical liability. Aurora is the last operating mine on the East Rand. As a result, they are tasked with pumping water they did not create, both in order to keep their own mine from flooding and in the name of environmental protection. “Aurora is the last man standing on the East Rand,” explains Carin Bosman, former director of Water Resource Protection and Waste at the DWA. “All the other mines have been flooded, have stopped pumping, and have been abandoned. If those pumps flood, then it all goes back to what it was originally, with old fountains that had been pumped dry [during old mining operations] being flooded again. But this time, it won’t be with natural water, but with acid mine drainage (AMD).”

Rather than forcing companies to properly remediate before closing, the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) instead allowed Aurora to take on an unnecessary burden with the purchase of Grootvlei, says Bosman. “DMR should never have allowed that transfer of liability. It’s because of [the department] that [Aurora] is completely liable. They’re pumping for all the old abandoned mines under Jo’burg.” According to the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act of 2002, liabilities can be partially or fully transferred to a new license holder, with the permission of the DMR.

Bosman says that this is not a new story. “A lot of mines have created a corporate veil between themselves and their subsidiaries. When they see that there’s not any more gold, that they’re not going to make any more money, then they place one of these subsidiaries in liquidation and sell it to the unsuspecting [new owners].

‘Very expensive water pump’
“Mandela’s grandson and Zuma’s nephew thought they were buying a gold mine, but what they in fact bought was a very expensive water pump,” she continues. “For a lot of these BEE companies they were sold virtually useless gold mines. Those guys never had any idea what they were getting themselves into. Is it their job to pump and save the entire city of Jo’burg?

“It’s absolutely wrong and unsustainable.”

Still, Democratic Alliance MP Gareth Morgan continues to place blame on Aurora. “I am not sympathetic about the situation that the mine owners find themselves in, because the due diligence when they bought that mine should have indicated the problems that were inherited,” he says. “Aurora must be forced to pump the water and treat it. Government must force them to do that.”

Aurora refused to respond to repeated requests for comment by the Mail & Guardian.

The problem at Grootvlei is in many ways a microcosm of AMD as a whole.

Decant of Gauteng’s Western Basin, which started in 2002, continues today, and can be attributed to old mine shafts overflowing — the result of mining companies not properly rehabilitating their operations before closing. As with the East Rand, a few small mining companies are now responsible for pumping and treating water that is not theirs. A similar situation is occurring in the Central Basin, which houses Johannesburg: as companies and government battle to keep water below the so-called environmentally critical level, both are pegged with dealing a century-old problem. Liabilities are spread across companies that have long shuttered and left.

Decreased crop yields
Gauteng’s communities now stand to bear the brunt of corporate maneuverings and poor regulations. Already two of the largest farmers in South Africa, located on the East Rand and who rely on the Blesbokspruit for water, have complained of decreased crop yields and concerns over animal health and safety.

Residents claim that their gardens are dying, that bird life is beign affected, that frogs — a so-called indicator species given their vulnerability to a degraded environment — are decreasing. “We’ve had massive die-backs of fish. We’ve had them floating up on the banks,” says Havinga.

Madden is especially concerned about Marievale Bird Sanctuary. He considers the sanctuary to be “horribly threatened. I take [my great grandson and grandchildren] to Marievale every school holiday and I teach them. How much longer will that be available to them? Why have I been so privileged? It makes me feel very saddened. You don’t spend a lifetime interested in something and then just watch it go like that. It has hurt me.”

While word has spread that the water in the Blesbokspruit is being affected, “every second person is extracting water from the stream”, says Madden.

“Anybody who lives downstream of the discharge is in danger. People are not using the water who are in the know, but there are a hell of a lot of people who use that water that are not in the know. People also don’t have access to other water.”

Havinga is concerned about what could happen decades down the line. “There’s obviously a scenario where you’ve got immediate impact, but then there’s the long term impacts as well which I think are not well understood and are not being monitored,” he says. “The sheep and cattle drink the water, and we eat them. Is that OK?”

Havinga, who works with the Blesbokspruit Environmental Action Group, notes that while residents are “continually” alerting the DWA of problems in the area, they have seen little government response. “The people you deal with are [often] brand new. You might get acknowledgement of your frustration, at best. But beyond that, there’s nothing. But I want to know what’s actually being done about it.

“The Department seems to be in a reactive mindset, and that is a problem,” Havinga continues.

Neither Madden nor Havinga have attempted to meet with Aurora about their concerns. “You cannot talk to people who do not know what they’re doing. They’ve been thrown down the deep end, they think that gold is in the mines that you find in bars that you bring out and you sell,” says Madden.

“They have shown absolutely no consideration for sitting around a table and talking sensibly.”

‘I feel like giving up’
Havinga is concerned about a new coalmine that has been proposed further upstream on the spruit. He claims that the environmental impact assessment (EIA), required by the DMR for all new mining applications, “did not include a proper assessment. There were massive, massive issues which were not addressed. We’re dealing with a sensitive environment, an already stressed environment. Nobody is seeing this whole thing holistically.”

Both Madden and Havinga feel they’re fighting an uphill battle. While Madden continues to be concerned about Marievale and the East Rand as a whole, his dedication is impeded by sadness. “I don’t think there’s anything I can do about this anymore.. But I can’t walk away from it,” he says. “I’m more involved.than ever. But what I can do about it, that’s another story. And that is the frustration. I feel like giving up.”

Madden’s spirits are lifted by an increased interest in protecting the area.

Organisations like BirdLife South Africa have come on board, as well as residents who have joined a variety of organisations. “The only light at the end of the tunnel is the support I’ve been getting. It’s better to have a concerted effort than a lone voice. [Advocacy groups] are being watchdogs, and that’s very important. Their voice is strong. That gives me hope.

“But this pollution has got to stop soon, or there’s going to be nothing else,” Madden continues. “[Aurora] must treat the water.

“We’re trying to push government to be the caretakers,” continues Havinga.

“The DWA is supposed to do regular monitoring, the mine is supposed to send reports through to them on a regular basis, and obviously none of that is happening, and I think that’s part of why the Department is so quiet on this issue, because they know that they’re not doing what they should be doing.

They are breaking the law as much as the person who’s polluting is breaking the law. The government and the mines are equally responsible.”

  • This piece was made possible through funding from the Open Society Foundation for South Africa’s Media Fellowship Programme.