Doom looms, but nobody cares about acid mine water

There is no political will to deal with the acid mine water problem, says the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, Mariette Liefferink.

“There is not inadequate information, but there is definitely a lack of political will, a lot of head-in-the-sand activity and a lack of commitment,” she said in Boksburg at a Critical Thinking Forum on acid mine drainage on Thursday.

Quoting the United States environmental protection agency, she said mining waste was the second greatest threat to the environment, next to global warming.

The South African government was first presented with a report on the effects of mining on water in 1957. In 1996, mining companies proposed a treatment of acid mine water to the government. The report was presented to Parliament in 1998, but nothing was done.

“Science cannot exist only for the entertainment of scientists.
When there are scientific reports and academic reports funded by taxpayers’ money, it must be used for the benefit of society,” Liefferink said.

Directives were also handed to mines operating in the West Rand basin of Gauteng in 2006 for them to produce self-sustainable treatment for acid mine water.

The mines presented a report, which the government rejected as an “unsolicited bid”.

“It is rather contradictory to invite mines to produce a self-sustaining solution and thereafter reject it as an unsolicited bid.”

She said the West Rand basin flooded in 2002. The Central basin was currently flooding, and the East Rand basin was about 750m from decanting.

The main company involved in underground mining in the Central basin was Central Rand Gold. Liefferink described it as “beleaguered” and “facing a billion rand fraud”.

“Yet, this is the company that will be tasked with the pumping and the treatment of acid mine water.”

In the East Rand basin, another “beleaguered” mine, Aurora, was responsible for pumping and treatment.

Aurora—headed by former president Nelson Mandela’s grandson Zondwa, and President Jacob Zuma’s nephew Khulubuse—had apparently failed to pump acid mine water from its Grootvlei shaft in Springs, due to a failure to maintain equipment and pay electricity bills, the liquidators of the mine said in June.

Liefferink warned that acid mine water from the West Rand basin had already “migrated” deep into the Cradle of Humankind world heritage site.

After the flooding of the West Rand basin, the water was pumped into the Robinson Lake recreational dam.

Uranium levels in the lake in 2002 measured 16 milligrams per litre. The natural uranium level in fresh water is 0.0004 milligrams per litre.

“The uranium levels were 40 000 times above natural uranium levels in fresh water.”

The people must rise
Public participation was essential in tackling the problem, as local residents were most affected and carried the cost of it during the 120 years of gold mining in South Africa.

“Since the government is only the custodian of our water resources, and since the people of South Africa are the owners [of the water resources], it is imperative that the people of South Africa be part of the decision-making,” Liefferink said.

Risks posed by acid mine water to humans included the impairment of cognitive functions, skin lesions and cancer.

However, no toxicology studies had been done to determine possible genetic impacts. There was however anecdotal evidence of deformity, she said.

Several speakers were expected to address the event, organised by the National Science and Technology Forum and the National Research Forum.

Levy mooted
On Thursday, Dr Henk Coetzee, a scientist at the Council for GeoScience, presented an overview of acid mine drainage. He suggested a mining levy to fund management of the problem. Coetzee said it was important to note that mining was not the only source of water pollution.

Professor Allison Lewis from the University of Cape Town presented a novel technology for addressing the problem, called eutectic ice crystallisation. This involved freezing the water, to separate out the salts it contained. Both the salts and water could then be used.

Dr Frank Winde from the North West University said it was not too late to tackle acid mine water-related problems.

The government had an inter-ministerial committee working on the threat of rising mine water in Gauteng and other parts of the country.

In a report presented to the Cabinet in February, a group of experts found that millions of litres of rapidly-rising acid mine water under Johannesburg would start flooding the lower levels of the Gold Reef City tourist mine early next year.

Shortly thereafter it would pass through an “environmentally critical” level—with potentially devastating consequences—before starting to flow out onto the surface.—Sapa

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