Toxic water a genuine threat
ÜGEN VOS The Citizen.
JOHANNESBURG - A tide of toxic water with the same acidity as battery acid, laced with carcinogenic heavy metals, sulphates and even radioactive uranium seeping into our water and food supply. Radioactive dust particles carried on the wind, inhaled by people and accumulating in crops.
This is not the plot of another post-apocalyptic movie, but a daily reality caused by more than a century of mining in South Africa. United Nations humanitarian organisations, the Water Resources Commission and NGOs such as the Federation for a Sustainable Environment have all been raising red flags about the phenomenon – and time could be running out.
The problem? As mines come to the end of their lives, mining companies stop pumping water from abandoned shafts. Water can then flood in, mix with chemical sludge and eventually spill to the surface like an overflowing bath.
The toxic brew seeps into streams and water catchments and is often used for irrigation. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has linked long-term exposure to Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) to cancer, skin lesions and mental retardation.
The Environmental Protection Agency has previously rated the ecological risk associated with mining waste as second “only to global warming and stratospheric ozone depletion”. In its March 2008 Emerging Issues Paper, the Department for Environmental Affairs and Tourism warned that long-term effects of AMD could persist for “several hundred years”.
Government has now released new regulations forcing mining companies to clean the toxic brew to drinking-quality standard, but unless construction on a central water treatment plant with a R550 million price-tag starts before the end of the year, the battle may be lost.
Gauteng’s water resources face severe contamination by early 2011, and activists warn that SA could be on the verge of environmental disaster, with more than 150 million litres of water now flowing into basins in the West, Central and East Rand.
The Western Utilities Corporation (WUC) aims to reclaim excess mine water from underground workings on the Witwatersrand. But its proposed plant will take two years to construct, and effectively let mining companies off the hook.
WUC will recover start-up capital and ongoing operational costs by selling purified water to Rand Water. About 11 million people will be drinking purified AMD-contaminated water, effectively making ordinary people foot the clean-up bill, if they want safe water.
Every day enough acid water to fill 600 swimming pools floods disused gold mines around Johannesburg, and 300 million litres bubble to the surface. Much goes into rivers, and flows to the rest of the country.
The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs says AMD has left land unusable and filtered into drinking water in parts of Mpumalanga
A 2007 report by the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) warning about wind-blown radioactive particles around the Wonderfonteinspruit forced mining companies to issue a directive that cattle could no longer be watered in the river.
The first “surface decant” of AMD in the Western Basin in 2002 poisoned wildlife in the Krugers- dorp Game Reserve and wiped out fish and frogs in the Tweelopiespruit.
The acid water further undermines underground rock formations, and could conceivably cause sinkholes on the N14 or undermine the stability of buildings.
Overflows of toxic mine water have previously led to radioactive contamination of fishing and picnic areas outside Randfontein, and acid water eating away at underground rock threatens the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site.
The Western basin, comprising hundreds of square kilometres, is almost saturated with AMD that could decant into the Vaal River system. And AMD in underground caverns stretching as far as Alberton, Nigel and Springs on the East Rand could threaten the Orange River if not dealt with.
Unchecked AMD discharges are seen as a huge environmental challenge. But mining activities often overlap, and getting individual companies to face liability has often been problematic.