The Moosa’s are cleaning their grey brick house in Geluksdal, east of Johannesburg. Their Gauteng family is coming over for a final get-together before Christmas but the Cape branch won’t come “because they always spend the first week sick with problems in the chest”, says Marlene Moosa.
The cause of that problem is the reason their home needs constant cleaning: dust storms that blow over Geluksdal from the adjacent tailings dam. To make her point, she runs a finger along the counter. “That’s new dust but nobody believes me. When we get visitors they ask when you last cleaned.”
The dust gets everywhere, and creates health problems such as asthma and sinusitis, she says. Finding people with these symptoms is easy on a weekday in Geluksdal because of the high unemployment rate.
Three old women walk slowly down the road. They start a loud argument with each other when asked about the dust. One points at her chest and says: “Die wit sand van die myn dump” [The white sand of the mine dump]. They continue walking and the conversation fades down the street.
That mine dump – the Brakpan Tailings Storage Facility owned by DRDGold – towers in the background of all things in Geluksdal, blocking out the western horizon. At 200-million tonnes, it’s one of the largest man-made structures in Africa. A walk around its base is about 12km.
Viewed from the agricultural land to the north, the tailings dam hunkers down into its surroundings. Rebuilding in the last decade has lowered its steep sides to prevent erosion. Green growth – encouraged by a layer of dolerite pasted on to its sides – helps it blend into the Brakpan countryside far more than the yellow tailings dams left behind by a century of gold mining.
But a new layer on top of the dam is evident. This comes from the central and eastern mining areas of Johannesburg.
DRDGold is re-mining old tailings dams. This involves digging them up, turning the sand into a liquid slurry and pumping it along 50km of pipeline to a treatment plant outside Geluksdal. That waste then goes down three dull-red pipes to the tailings dam. Each one is wide enough to crawl down. The fresh layer on the dam is the problem, according to locals. Financial statements show DRDGold netted seven tonnes of gold last year.
Fat, grey, clouds mean welcomed rain breaking the drought, but also dust. Sitting under a peach tree, Zipho Khambule, a native of Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, points east towards Geluksdal some three kilometres away and says: “The wind goes that way. They get the dust.”
But sometimes it blows the other way and he wakes up with dust on his lips and bedding.
Despite his misgivings, Khambule wants a permanent job at the tailings dam so he can better raise four children he left at home. For now, he looks after a herd of cattle and sheep. These graze on the green grass north of the dam.
DRDGold says in one of its environment studies that the wind does blow towards the east. Geluksdal is east of the Brakpan tailings dam. But the company tells the Mail & Guardian that: “The entire top surface of the tailings facility is active and is either covered in water or constantly very wet, so gives rise to little dust.” A network of monitors constantly test this assertion and have found no problems with high levels of dust, it says.
“The regulated dust limit [for residential areas] has not been exceeded for more than two years.” That limit means dust levels, averaged over a month, cannot exceed a set level of 600mg per square metre for any two months in a year.
What DRDGold won’t do is talk about the dust storms.
Instead, it says the data on dust is shared at a quarterly meeting at its nearby gold treatment facility. DRDGold also says it has “regular contact” with “community” leaders and members. “While dust and mitigation measures are occasionally discussed during these contacts, dust is not raised serially in the form of formal complaints.”
Marlene Moosa says this is because people in Geluksdal don’t complain about adversity. “Our people just see [the dust] as part of our life and we get on.” That means she takes her medication twice a day and tries her best to do what exercise she can with her breathing problems.
She turns to her husband Gerhard and the two try to work out if they have ever heard dust being discussed in any detail at church – there’s one on virtually every street. They come up blank, but decide that it should be talked about. Marlene says: “I’ve never really thought about it [the cause of her problems]. But now that you mention it, we should do something. What can we do?”
At the local clinic, that question is one that nurses also ask, off the record. The main problems they come across are high blood pressure and cancers. But chest problems are more common than they should be.
One doctor says the biggest problem with dust comes in the form of small particles – PM2.5 and PM10 – which lodge in people’s lungs and nasal passages.
What the medical practitioners need is data. But nobody is doing research on the effect of dust on people’s health in Geluksdal.
DRDGold says it complies with the law and supplies its data to affected communities and government. It is then the state’s job to make sure that any further problems are picked up.
M&G has requested this information but has never received it. Other research into health and Johannesburg’s mine dumps has just started.
Rehabilitation will start when DRDGold stops re-mining the other dumps. Only then will the sand be covered by green growth. For the people of Geluksdal, that means the dust from the Brakpan tailings dam will remain part of their lives and people like Marlene Moosa will just have to make sure they can continue breathing until that happens.