Reef Chernobyl ‘will cost billions’

Dangerous levels of radio­activity in Gauteng’s mine dumps will take decades and billions of rands to clear, say the scientists who blew the whistle on the province’s acid mine drainage problem.

In the wake of the government’s decision last week to set aside R225-million to treat toxic water in underground mine voids, the focus fell on cleaning up hundreds of tailings dumps and slimes dams across the Reef. According to the government report on acid mine drainage toxic residues in mine dumps are seeping into underground water and exacerbating the problem.

Anthony Turton, a scientist who raised the alarm about acid mine drainage a decade ago, said this week that sorting out the dumps would be difficult. “The sheer scale and complexity of dealing with radioactive dumps is far worse than the water problem,” he said.

Families were already being moved and legal action was being threatened over the best way to deal with this legacy of the gold rush more than a century ago. Mariette Liefferink, the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, said the tailings dumps and dams were historically sited on unlined dolomite, resulting in heavy metals and uranium ­seeping into groundwater.

“There are at least 270 tailings dams on the Witwatersrand that will continue causing acid mine drainage for hundreds of years,” she said. Liefferink pointed to the recent relocation of families from a tailings dump at the Tudor Shaft informal settlement on the West Rand after radiation levels were found to be 15 times higher than normal.


Thirty-five of 197 affected families had been moved in the past fortnight after a world expert in uranium products, Chris Busby, found that radiation levels at Tudor Shaft were comparable with “the Chernobyl exclusion zone — higher in fact”. Other informal settlements, including Bull Brand, Soul City and Baghdad, and an RDP housing settlement established close to Tudor Shaft, might also have to be moved.

Contamination
Like the escalation of acid mine drainage problems a decade ago, the focus on radioactive contamination started on the West Rand. A recent study by the Council for Geoscience showed residential areas such as Carletonville, Westonaria and Khutsong had a high risk of contamination.

“All the tailings dams on the West Rand contain sediment high in uranium,” said Liefferink. “But Tudor Shaft is mirrored by all the other goldfields of the Witwatersrand. Residents are exposed to dust pollution from the mine dumps, contamination of water and crops and pollution of soil and other materials they use for construction.”

Health risks included cancers, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, neurotoxic syndromes and growth deficiencies. Turton and the Gauteng government have compiled a report on the reclamation of “mine residue areas” that will be released next week for public input. “Our task is to decide what to do with the mine residue,” he said. “Billions of rands could be involved.”

The options included red-lining radioactive hot spots, rehabilitating the dumps, or re-mining the dumps and creating licensed mega-dumps elsewhere. This could take up to 30 years, he said.

Liefferink’s federation is opposing the remining and resiting of dumps and is taking legal advice on challenging 28 recent authorisations. “Because of the nuclear renaissance and renewed interest in uranium, applications for the remining of historic tailings have increased,” she said.

“Gold Fields received a positive authorisation last week to remine 13 historic tailings dumps and deposit 750-million tailings within its centralised tailings storage facility.”First Uranium is remining 15 tailings dumps and establishing a super dump in the Klerksdorp area, within 1km of the Vaal River.

“Rand Uranium and Mintails have also applied for the remining of historic tailings dumps and the establishment of super dumps.” Radiometric surveys of previously reprocessed mine residue areas had, in some cases, shown elevated levels of residual radioactivity in the soils.

“The reprocessing activities could also result in the creation of two or more contaminated sites, where one previously existed,” Liefferink said. Solly Petra, the spokesperson for the department of mineral resources, said it could not answer questions about its research into the contamination of tailings dumps and its recommendations for remediation by the time the M&G went to print.

Subscribe to the M&G

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.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Fiona Macleod
Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements.

She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga.

An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation.

She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive.

She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice.

Related stories

Walking a fine green line for credibility

The Mail & Guardian will celebrate a Decade of Greening in 2013.

CSI spend more than a drop in the ocean

Call by business leaders rekindle debate.

Basic countries push for extension of Kyoto Protocol

But several major signatories are refusing to expand emissions cuts when the agreement expires, writes Fiona Macleod.

Companies take a bow

Judges say without corporate support there would be chaos among communities

Tyre industry gets to grips with recycling

Court puts a spoke in producers' wheel by agreeing that they are responsible for their products' waste.

‘Tiger man’ Varty issues rhino horn challenge

"Tiger Man" John Varty has suggested that breeders should defy the government's trade ban and stage a high-profile global auction of horns.
Advertising

Subscribers only

Dozens of birds and bats perish in extreme heat in...

In a single day, temperatures in northern KwaZulu-Natal climbed to a lethal 45°C, causing a mass die-off of birds and bats

Q&A Sessions: Frank Chikane on the rainbow where colours never...

Reverend Frank Chikane has just completed six years as the chairperson of the Kagiso Trust. He speaks about corruption, his children’s views and how churches can be mobilised

More top stories

Eusebius McKaiser: Mpofu, Gordhan caught in the crosshairs

The lawyer failed to make his Indian racist argument and the politician refused to admit he had no direct evidence

Corruption forces health shake-up in Gauteng

Dr Thembi Mokgethi appointed as new health MEC as premier seeks to stop Covid-19 malfeasance

Public-private partnerships are key for Africa’s cocoa farmers

Value chain efficiency and partnerships can sustain the livelihoods of farmers of this historically underpriced crop

Battery acid, cassava sticks and clothes hangers: We must end...

COMMENT: The US’s global gag rule blocks funding to any foreign NGOS that perform abortions, except in very limited cases. The Biden-Harris administration must rescind it
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…