Departments admit to acid water slip-up
Thirty million litres of water laden with heavy metals are being treated each day at a plant on Gauteng’s West Rand. This has stabilised one of the province’s three water basins and gone some way towards averting the acid mine drainage crisis. But the plant is running without environmental authorisations, and plant managers admit to releasing untreated water into the environment.
These are the main findings of a December 2014 site visit by Ndivhuho Mudau, a member of the Green Scorpions – the enforcement arm of the environment department.
Though damning in that it found environmental legislation was being flouted, the report was not acted on. It was only released thanks to a Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia) request by a nongovernmental organisation, the Federation for a Sustainable Environment.
Illegal operations began at the very start of the project. Work on the treatment works began in December 2011 – and the plant was operating by May 2012 – but the environmental authorisation for construction and operation was only granted in January 2013. Mudau found that “the activity commenced before authorisation was issued”.
Nobody appears to have formally told the environment department that operations had actually begun. Mudau indicated as much in her report: “The department was under the impression that the project has not yet commenced as the [water and sanitation department] never informed [environmental affairs] of the commencement of the project, as required in the environmental authorisation.”
This confusion at environmental affairs about the project is confirmed in its rejection of a September 2014 Paia request by the Federation for a Sustainable Environment for any information about the treatment works. In a sworn affidavit, a department official said: “The information that you have requested is not in existence as the work has not yet commenced in the western basin of the Witwatersrand gold field.”
The work is part of a R10-billion response to acid mine drainage in Gauteng. Born as an emergency response to public panic over heavily polluted water, it has been rushed through procurement and legislative approvals. Funding has come through the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority, an investment vehicle for the water department. With the most urgent acid problems being in the western basin, work began there by piggybacking on an existing treatment plant run by mining company Sibanye Gold. Using departmental funding, the mine was to double its treatment capacity and run the works on behalf of the government. Given that it was an emergency, environmental affairs allowed water affairs to skip certain steps.
But the 2013 authorisation still ensured that water affairs would be responsible for any environmental impacts, which it had to lessen. It had to create an environmental management programme to act as a blueprint. Steps taken to safeguard the environment would be listed, next to time frames and targets. This would allow environmental affairs to hold the treatment works to account if anything went wrong. When the Green Scorpions asked water affairs for this document, they were told it was not available. “This department [water] also could not provide the inspector with the project file.”
This meant water affairs had skipped several other requirements of their environmental authorisation, the Green Scorpions found. Positions such as an environmental control officer and a waste management control officer, which would ensure the treatment works complied with environmental legislation, had not been occupied.
Regular reports that these officials, as well as others, should have compiled and submitted were unavailable when Mudau asked for them. After investigating the issue further, she said: “The [water affairs department] has never submitted any document as required by the conditions of this environmental authorisation.”
The first of these reports should have been an environmental audit, normally submitted within 30 days of the construction being completed. This would look at the effect of the new plant and suggest ways in which it could be further reduced. The next should be regular water tests, looking at the quality of water being released from the acid treatment works.
This quality has been regularly queried by civil society, particularly the heavy salt load and the discovery of heavy metals in some of the treated water. Earlier this year, the water department said it had cancelled its contract for water testing in 2013 and was still looking for a new laboratory. When asked for results by the Scorpions, the department was unable to provide any.
But problems occurred before the water was even released. Mudau found that untreated water regularly overflowed into wetlands around the treatment plant. A representative of Sibanye Gold told Mudau that this occurred most during the rainy season. They had sent reports to water affairs, but a containment system had still not been built, Sibanye Gold said.
The environment authorisation given to the water department for the works specifically says: “The holder must prevent spillages. Where spillages occur, the holder must ensure the effective and safe cleaning of such spillages.” A water affairs official present during Mudau’s visit admitted that the department was aware that the effluent “is not fit for discharge into the environment”.
But it was still released and flowed into the Krugersdorp Game Reserve, they said.
In concluding her report, Mudau said: “[The department of water affairs] is not doing anything to prevent acidic water from polluting the environment.”