The sludge is travelling far into drinking water and water used for agriculture. (Photo by Gallo Images/Alet Pretorius)
Joe Pretorius and his family would often go down to the Proses Spruit, take their canoes out on its clear depths, and have a swim.
The water “was so clean you could drink it”, said Pretorius, who runs a game farm downstream from the diamond-mining town of Jagersfontein in the Free State.
Now, it’s the scene of an “ecological tragedy”. On 11 September, a tailings dam collapsed at Jagersfontein, causing large volumes of slime to engulf and destroy the homes and properties of more than 300 residents, and killing at least one person. The deluge, too, smothered water systems like the Proses Spruit.
“The river is unusable now,” Pretorius said. “It’s just this white-grey desolate area. This was an unspoilt, pristine river environment that is now under mine sludge.”
Drone footage Pretorius took revealed how the Proses Spruit bore the “full brunt” of the tailings dam collapse. “There’s just kilometres and kilometres of this white-grey mud lying in this river system. It’s an ecological horror show. The really bad thing about it is that this was a pristine river environment. You would walk down there and hear and see fish eagles, every kind of water bird, otters, all sorts of little crabs, frogs and insects — that’s all gone.
“The problem is that you’re sitting with this thick mud that covers everything. Once it’s baked, there’s no oxygen or sunlight that can get through. I suppose in time with a couple of seasons of good rainfall, some of it will be washed away and, as it dries, some of it will be blown away, but I don’t know how we’re ever going to fix it.”
Sputnik Ratau, spokesperson for the department of water and sanitation, said the rivers affected by the spill include the Riet River that flows into the Kalkfontein Dam, the Proses Spruit, which supplies the Wolwas Dam and the Krommellenboogspruit, which is a tributary of the Riet River. The Kalkfontein Dam is the water-supply source for several towns in the area. It is also used for agriculture.
Angela Mathee, chief specialist scientist at the environment and health research unit at the South African Medical Research Council and her team were requested to assist with testing on an urgent basis, “given our previous experiences with soil and water sampling”.
They collected soil samples from the Charlesville area and water and sludge samples from the banks of the stream.
“On the day of our site visit, we observed that the sludge had travelled downstream in the Kromellenboog River [and well beyond] to a point at least 20km away from Jagersfontein,” she said. “Sludge covered the entire expanse of the river bed and extended well beyond the stream banks. We saw dead or dying crabs, and no other evidence of aquatic life, which may be indicators of an ecological disaster.”
Mathee said anecdotal accounts of the sludge having reached the Kalkfontein Dam were shared with her team. The analytical chemistry laboratory at the University of Johannesburg is undertaking the analyses of the samples, and “we hope that the results will be available by next week”.
On the potentially hazardous nature of the sludge, she explained: “We do not yet have the results available so cannot say with any certainty. However, diamonds are being mined at Jagersfontein; tailings from diamond mines are not associated with as high a risk profile as gold mining, for example, which often predisposes at-risk groups to toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury and arsenic.”
The results of testing, according to Ratau, “is still the subject of investigation and might be used as evidence during an enquiry/legal process”.
The flood of sludge also rendered the Jagersfontein wastewater treatment plant dysfunctional, said Mathee.
“Without the provision of portable toilets to everyone in the town for the duration of the period in which the wastewater treatment plant is in a state of dysfunction, there are concerns about the release into the environment of raw sewage generated from the population of around 7 000, resulting in environmental contamination, potentially disastrous ecological consequences and an increase in public health risks, including from diarrhoeal diseases.”
Water governance expert Carin Bosman said that while the sludge may not be chemically toxic, it is a “fine, fine silt that is extremely abrasive and corrosive”.
“And when that slime spilled, it took the sewage works away. That is immediately an acute health risk to people. Where is all that sewage going now? Everybody is using the toilet every day. That shit is coming out of the pipes. Any waterborne disease that’s associated with sewage is now the risk here.”
The ecological system in the Kalkfontein Dam and in the stretch of river up to the dam has gone, she added. “A lot of people use the water from that stream and from the dam for watering their livestock. Sheep can’t drink that water. There’s no way you can get that sludge out of the water, it will sit as sludge at the bottom of the system, which will affect the aquatic environment. The fish will probably all die.”
In December 2020, the department issued a directive against the mine’s owner, Jagersfontein Developments, which extracts diamonds from the waste tailings of mining operations, ordering it to cease operations for disposing volumes above authorised limits. The directive was lifted in January last year.
“The reason why they [the department] lifted the directive was because Jagersfontein Developments gave them confirmation they had stopped disposing water in this dam and water affairs took them on their word,” Bosman said.
The directive notes how, on 29 September 2020, the department said the firm had exceeded the volumes authorised for the disposal on the fine tailings storage facility in contravention of the water-use licence conditions, describing how the lack of adequate planning and “blatant non-compliance” has “placed all parties in a precarious situation”.
It cited a report by SRK Consulting in November 2020, in which engineers identified a “serious risk” in association with the fine tailings disposal facility. The directive, too, noted how since the department’s notice was issued “wherein you were notified not to dispose of further volumes of waste … your operations have disposed of further volumes of waste”.
The department’s officials had done a “great job”, she said. “They issued a directive, they followed up, but, like always, the ‘politics of pollution’ probably played a role in the lifting of the directive. When I worked for the department, the battle with the politicians to keep directives issued in place was always harder than the battle to get the mines to do the right thing.”
No dam safety licence
Ratau confirmed that Jagersfontein Developments was not issued a dam safety licence. The company did not respond to Mail & Guardian this week.
Bosman said Jagersfontein Developments “acted unlawfully” in that it did not have a dam safety permit. “There are two types of water licences, so to speak. I always explain to people it’s like the difference between a firearm and a licence to marry someone — the one is for enjoyment and the other one can kill you, and I’m not saying which one. That safety permit is like a firearm licence. It’s the licence you get to prevent your dam from killing people. Any dam that contains more than 50 000 cubes of water and has a height of a wall of more than 5m must have a dam safety permit. This dam that spilled is certainly higher than 5m and way more than 50 000 cubes. So, they should have had a dam safety permit before they started to dispose of more than one drop.”
The water and sanitation department, she said, has the power under section 19 of the Water Act to take whatever action is necessary to prevent pollution from spreading, to contain the pollution or to remedy the effects of pollution.
“It can claim the money that they now have to spend to fix this shit, back later from … whoever and their brother is responsible. I know water affairs is quite reluctant to take action because they say we don’t know if we’re going to get our money back, but they need to take action.”
On this, Ratau said: “We always consider that when we do our regulatory functions. Sometimes, it could be quicker for us to do the work and then get reimbursed later, but it’s not a decision that’s been made yet. It’s one of the options. We know that the company is well aware that there’s a definite need to move with speed towards cleaning up the mess” before the sludge hardens and the rainy season.