Karoo way of life under threat from mining company

‘I am a custodian of this land. I have to hand it over to the seventh generation.” Billy Steenkamp has chosen sunset to meet on the hill that forms Beaufort West’s northern boundary.

The small town hugs the N1, the heart of its economy. Trees and natural springs in the affluent north; zinc roofs and dust in the poorer south.

“What am I going to hand over if I allow mining?”

A descendant of the IXam Khoisan, he sees the mountains that are starting to block out the setting sun as his ancestral home. It is the IXam motto “diverse people unite” that adorns the South African coat of arms. “The Karoo is a special place, we need to stop any reckless development.”

His concerns are repeated by the residents of Beaufort West and the farmers in the district.

Billy Steenkamp and his son Ulricht (left) fear the land will be further destroyed if mining restarts. (Photos: Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Where’s all this taking place?

The Karoo is a wide belt between the coast and Highveld, 800m above sea level. Johannesburg is 950km away, and Cape Town 400km.

Little rain means life unfolds according to geological timescales. Plants can take a century to reach maturity, and even then only reach shoelace height. Flat mountains, largely saved from erosion by their tough dolomitic caps, mark the outer boundaries of the alien landscape. These show the curvature of the Earth, seeming to grow out of the shimmering horizon.

What’s at stake?
Sheep farming has dominated the Karoo economy for two centuries. The region’s legendary hospitality comes from the isolation of the large farms – any face is a new conversation. Entire fields of olive green bush and grey earth are intermittently punctuated by the white humps of sheep. Lamb and wool are big here.

The Central Karoo District Municipality incorporates 71 000 people living on 39 000km2 – fewer than two per square kilometre. Although farming takes up the most land, it is a poor employer. More than 70% of the region’s adults survive through social grants.

But renewable energy has started to change this. The Karoo’s constant winds and high ultraviolet radiation mean solar and wind plants are popping up around the region. More than R100-billion in investment has come from overseas.

Large plants, producing 100 megawatts of electricity, are being planned around Beaufort West. Studies by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research shows that these projects employ more people per rand than traditional power sources.

So what’s the big deal?
The Karoo’s landscape is dominated by the 5km high remains of a volcano that once towered over what is now Beaufort West. Yellow seams of nuclear fuel are buried just below the surface. Its presence threatened to turn the town into a mining metropolis in the 1970s. Mines were dug into the Karoo but nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl meant the price of uranium collapsed. Operations were abandoned overnight. Minimal environmental legislation at the time meant these companies did not have to rehabilitate the area.

Seven years ago, the Australian-listed and Russian-backed mining company, Peninsula Energy, started buying up existing mining rights. Through its local operations – Tasman Pacific Minerals Limited and its black economic empowerment partner, Lukisa JV Company – it started digging prospecting holes that have mushroomed to 10 000. Their thick, blue plastic pipes dot the landscape.

Mining operations are planned in 736 000 hectares of the Karoo, ranging from Rietbron in the Eastern Cape to Sutherland in the Western Cape and Loxton in the Northern Cape. Some of the blocks stretch for 70km, with a 1.5km wide pit being dug along the shallow uranium seam. The mining is not sophisticated and is akin to quarrying. A quarter of the mines will be opencast, and the rest will be underground. Peninsula has already bought up 750 000 hectares of land.

Higher grade uranium will be carried from the mines on 140km of provincial and farming road to a central processing plant. About 40km east of Beaufort West, this will prepare uranium to a state in which it can be shipped overseas. Waste will go into dumps, which the company says will cover 535 hectares of the Karoo. The average football field covers 0.8 hectares.

What have we got to be worried about, really?
To get a mining right, Peninsula has to submit an application to the minerals department. This must include objections and input from public consultation.

The first one was held in January. Five farmers attended. Two hundred people were present at the second, last month. An environmental impact assessment was presented at these meetings, but its wording is inherently in favour of the mining.

A study looking at the impact on water resources says: “The main purpose of this investigation revolves around the identification of a suitable aquifer to supply groundwater to the mine, as well as the geohydrological characteristics which could influence potential underground mining operations.”  

But the impact assessment, and objections from affected parties, give a good overview of the environmental problems that uranium mining could bring.

  • Chief among these is the impact on water resources. The mines and the processing plant will use 1.3-million cubic metres of water a year. This is double the amount used by the 71 000 people and the towns in the municipality. Although there is little rainfall in the Karoo, there is a lot of underground water. The mine proposes drilling boreholes. But this – and dropping water levels – will take water from farmers.
  • There is also little money set aside for managing water supplies: the eastern block of mines is budgeting R75 000 for water management over 17 years. Similar operations in South Africa budget millions.
  • There is no mention of what will happen after mining, when the underground mines fill up with water, changing the water table and exposing water to heavy metal pollution.
  • The biggest health risk comes from radiated particles, which will be blown across the Karoo, but it is barely covered in the mine’s assessments. One line says: “The impact of dust is more of a nuisance in nature and does not typically pose a health risk due to its typically coarse size.” The scant information results from radiation risk not having to be included in an impact assessment. This falls under the jurisdiction of the National Nuclear Regulator.
  • Little is said about the Karoo’s natural vegetation, save that “it is assumed that the vegetation will not be re-established and it will take years after the decommissioning phase for natural succession of the vegetation, especially in such an arid climate”. The area’s people, speaking at the second consultation meeting, asked that vegetation be kept in a nursery to allow rehabilitation. The mine responded by saying it was not in the nursery business so would not follow such a path.
  • There is also scant mention of the sacred sites of the IXam Khoisan. The South African Heritage Resources Agency has also not been included in the mine’s feasibility studies.

But the mine is going to do the right thing. Right?
South Africa has 6 000 abandoned mines, and some of them are around Beaufort West. These sites were bought by Peninsula when it acquired the 750 000 hectares of the Karoo. Mining legislation stipulates that, with any such purchase, liability is transferred to the new mine.

But, at two sites visited by the Mail & Guardian, decades-old stacks of rock have been left in the veld. At one site, ventilation shafts of an underground mine, abandoned when its shafts flooded, poke out of the veld. The area has high levels of radiation but no baseline studies have been done on this legacy of mining.

A farmer in a bakkie, with a handful of sheep jammed in the back, pulls over on the side of the roadand asks for some more information about the mine – and the radiation. Despite having lived here for three decades, he knows little about it.  

Another site, 40km west of Beaufort West, has no warning signs, and there is no mention of the high levels of radiation. The mined rocks are slowly being broken down, and the constant wind is blowing irradiated dust particles across the area.

Stefan Cramer (above) takes a radiation reading at a mine outside Beaufort West. 

Stefan Cramer, from the South African Faith Communities Environ­mental Alliance, takes out his yellow Geiger counter to test the rock. The legal safe limit is 0.4 microsieverts.

The counter begins to beep urgently at four microsieverts. The beeping becomes a monotonous backdrop, as levels go up to seven.

The 7m-deep mining pit that birthed the rock is filled with a mixture of rusted mining material and reeds. A thick yellow band of uranium – yellow cake – is exposed to wind and water in one corner.

Wait, so Peninsula is already breaking the law?
Instead of burying the waste and closing off the area, more waste has been added to it. White bags filled with grey dirt have been dumped on a pile of broken red bricks. This has split many of the bags. The light wind stirred up by the 30°C heat whips up dust. The Geiger readings show the bags are four times the legal limit (see graphic).

Stepping back and adjusting his protective face mask, Cramer says: “We caught them in the act; radioactive waste dumping. Unlicensed and unregistered.”

His Geiger counter is certified and linked to a GPS system, so he can trace the constant readings as he moves about. This information has been forwarded to the National Nuclear Regulator. Dumping radiated waste without a permit is illegal.

Peninsula did not respond to requests for comment.

What does uranium do?
Most uranium is stuck in hard rock, where its particles are mixed with other compounds. But in softer rock, and in exposed dust particles, uranium releases its more dangerous sister particles: radon and polonium.

When airborne, these can settle in your lungs, which can lead to lung and stomach cancer and leukaemia. Many birth defects have also been linked to exposure to uranium and its family. It can lead to intergenerational problems too, because the particles interfere with a person’s genetic code and damage is passed down through generations.

Residents of Beaufort West have asked for a baseline study to be done to establish the existing effect of exposed uranium in the area.

Can the mining be stopped?
The minerals department is the final arbiter on mining decisions, but can only make these based on the information put in front of it. This is done by consultants hired by the mine.

The only other department with a meaningful say is water affairs, which must grant a water use licence for the mine.

But those opposing mining – from civil society to farming communities and towns – have powerful allies in the form of rich landowners and agricultural unions. Agri Western Cape has submitted a comprehensive objection to the mining, a consequence of it being able to use dedicated environmental lawyers.

But the people in Beaufort West are less hopeful for an outcome that maintains the status quo.

Steenkamp says he is in contact with other indigenous communities and faith groups that live near mines. “We know what mining brings, and it is never good.”

UPDATE (June 13):
The National Nuclear Regulator subsequently visited this site and conducted an inspection. This found that the site is fenced off, with a lockable gate controlling access and egress. External gamma dose rates of between 0.04 microSieverts per hour and 3.57 microSieverts per hour – which is what the regulator measured – were therefore acceptable, “given that there is a strict access to the site”. As a result, the regulator said: “It is unlikely that the dose limit for the public (1 microSievert per annum) would be exceeded.”  

When it comes to the possibility of waste being blown about, or leaching into the air, the regulator said that it was waiting for a compliance report from the mining company. This report would show all the ways in which waste could affect the surrounding environment, and people. Until then, the regulator said: “The NNR shall engage the authorisation holder in ensuring that the material is contained in such a manner that it will not be prone to wind erosion and leaching into underground water while finalising the safety assessment, which shall inform how best to handle this material.”

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is a former acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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