Toxic mining legacy for Johannesburg

2011-03-26 21:05

Randfontein - When it rains in the shanty town of Tudor Shaft, the streets pool with orange water that smells like vinegar. Experts say the water contains radioactive minerals and has killed all aquatic life in a nearby river.

Tudor Shaft takes its name, and its troubles, from an abandoned gold mine.

It's just a fraction of the toxic but long-overlooked legacy of the mining industry which accounts for 17% of everything South Africa produces, and the country is the world's fourth biggest exporter, sitting on a mother lode that runs for miles from Johannesburg into the countryside.

Social campaigners, preoccupied first with overthrowing apartheid and then with raising living standards for a badly neglected black majority, are now waking up to the environmental cause. The effects of mining are the focus of parliamentary debate and newspaper stories. But no one is yet taking responsibility or funding a clean up that would probably put a dent in profits.

Johannesburg literally sits on a gold mine. Flat-topped heaps of mined earth are backdrops to skyscrapers and bridges. FNB Stadium, the main arena in last year's World Cup soccer tournament, sits at the foot of a mine dump. Johannesburg's amusement park is called Gold Reef City and features a ride that plunges into a mine shaft.

The city of 3.2 million grew out of the gold bonanza discovered in the early 1900s. Nowadays, whenever a mining company removes one of the 270 dumps around Johannesburg to reprocess the waste, heritage advocates complain that the city is losing a piece of its history.

The worst environmental effects are felt in places like Tudor Shaft, 40km from the city. Here, Patrick Mkoyo's children run barefoot, their feet tinted orange from contaminated sand. He says they sometimes come home with rashes or breathing difficulties.

"They are not OK here, but I don't have a choice; I have no other place to stay," says Mkoyo, 35, as he stirs a family lunch of cornmeal porridge in his immaculately kept shack.

32 times the limit

The doctors tell him they don't know what is causing the children's medical problems. But Chris Busby, a professor from Northern Ireland's University of Ulster, thinks he has the likely answer.

In December he tested the soil around Mkoyo's shack and found it contained at least 32 times the amount of radioactivity allowed by government regulators. Busby prepared the report for the Federation for Sustainable Environment, a private Johannesburg group working to bring the toxic water issue to public attention.

According to Terence McCarthy, a minerals professor at Johannesburg's University of Witwatersrand, radioactivity comes from uranium traces in mined rock which lies in dumps until rain flushes it into the ground and river systems.

Acidic water dissolves and liquefies metals in the mining rock, including uranium, says Anthony Turton, a professor of environmental management at University of the Free State. Liquefied uranium, toxic and radioactive, flows out of the mines, he says.

The water can be so acidic that it eliminates river wildlife, Turton says.

The problem hasn't yet reached Johannesburg itself, but one mining basin in the city has already overflowed, and one of the next to overflow is under the city centre, experts say.

Aside from Tudor Shaft, other parts of the city's outskirts are feeling the damage of toxic mine water, entering rivers and communities at an increasing rate with heavy rain in recent months, says Mariette Liefferink, chief executive of the Federation for Sustainable Environment, a private group. Yellow-tinted grass, orange mud and lifeless rivers plague sections of western Johannesburg, as well as Soweto, one of South Africa's largest townships.

No studies have been done on how exposure to the water affects health, Liefferink says, but scientific reports have documented its destructive effects on the ecosystem, soil and water.

Derelict mines

Peter Cronshaw, a mineral economics consultant for Tegritas Financial Services, said the cost of a clean up would accelerate South Africa's already declining mining industry, particularly for smaller companies, but it wouldn't affect the global gold industry. The country's diminishing supply of gold means an increasing number of derelict mines.

South Africa produced 206 of the 2 652 metric tons of gold mined globally in 2010, says Philip Newman, the research director of London-based GFMS, which researches precious metals. Its production ranks fourth behind China, Australia and the US.

While abandoned mines everywhere produce toxic run off, the problem is most threatening in South Africa, Turton says. Johannesburg, unlike most mining cities, is densely populated and an economic hub. On top of that, Turton says, the mining industry in South Africa has gone largely unregulated.

"There's been little oversight from government, and mining companies have done nothing about it - for 120 years they've had a party," Turton said.

Environmental NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, got off to a late start on mining because past governments, while aware of toxic mine water's impact, sought to keep the public in ignorance, he said.

"Under apartheid, there was absolutely no tolerance of any NGO activity at all," Turton said. "When there was activity, it had to do very much with bringing down the apartheid state."

Now, the post-apartheid government is under pressure to hold companies accountable, while the companies deny responsibility.

"Most of the toxic water that flows into rivers come from abandoned mine sites which have no owners and thus the responsibility to put into place water pollution control measures lie with the state," says Nikisi Lesufi, senior executive of the Chamber of Mines, an industry group.

Mines don't own title

Cronshaw, the consultant, says most gold mining companies don't even have titles to the mines that are the source of toxic water.

"The mining companies say: These mines were here long before we were and they weren't our mines; our companies are subsidiaries. The government allowed them to do this, therefore it has got to sort it out," Cronshaw says.

AngloGold Ashanti, the mining giant, says it expects the government will "lead the process of national co-ordination" on handling toxic water and that the company already contributes to pumping water from one defunct shaft outside of Johannesburg. In a statement, spokesperson Alan Fine said AngloGold mine dumps do not contain much groundwater.

Mining company Anglo American tracks water quality and is devising a national water-cleansing strategy for itself, spokesperson Pranill Ramchander said in an e-mail.

In the US, mine companies have been under tight regulation for decades. R Larry Grayson, professor of energy and mineral engineering at Penn State University, recalls that a US mine he worked at in the 1970s was fined $10 000 on the spot because of one dead fish found.

Sputnik Ratau the government's spokesman on water and environmental affairs, says dangerous mine waste is a "high priority," but acknowledges it was not given serious attention until the government set up a committee to study the issue in September.

"Acid mine drainage is toxic water, and if it flows into rivers, it obviously contaminates rivers and underground waters, which become not a healthy source of drinking for humans, animals, plants - all living organisms," he said.

"Because the necessary steps were not taken from day one," Ratau said, South Africans "are now reaping what you would call the misfortune of the benefit that we had from the legacy of mining in this country."

  • Judith - 2011-03-27 08:31

    "South Africans "are now reaping what you would call the misfortune of the benefit that we had from the legacy of mining in this country."" And so we wait whilst trying to ensure that the affected communities obtain social justice. There are solutions to the problem, but so far government has not moved to assess the ones that will produce potable water. DMR wants a free rein on granting new mining licences which could result in more Acid Mine Drainage occurring right across the Vaal Catchment. This will result in the total loss of our main water supply for most of the country. The situation is rapidly moving into an abuse of the constitutional rights of South Africans

      AgPseDaddy - 2011-03-27 09:04

      I agree, but do the anc regime care! Not a dam it is like all of Africa, rape; rape and rape the land till it is no more ?

      Madelane - 2011-03-27 15:42

      The politicians are but puppets of these mining houses, their management and their shareholders and must be held accountable for the environmental damage they have done all in the name of their 'god' money. The cost should be borne by the self same individuals who make up the ownership of these corporates.

      Rajty - 2011-03-28 12:43

      AgPseDaddy please be objective. Stop voicing your frustrations about god-knows-what and consider the facts- the ANC government is responsible???And what about those lily-white mines. Thats the problem in this country- corruption and immorality are seen as one-way streets, so each time they crop up only the black lot are shown to be indulging.....

      fuzzy - 2011-03-29 09:09

      Why dont we get the R5bn to fix this problem from Mr Oppenheimer & Co. They benefited all these years and have taken the cash out of this country its only fair that they fix this problem now

  • Macho Mike - 2011-03-27 11:44

    Eish, this story, she leaves me feeling "down in the dumps"

      Louise - 2011-03-29 08:57

      LOL! Good one :)

  • BigMoose - 2011-03-27 11:47

    Hopefully Luthuli House will disappear into a huge sink-hole, taking the ANC with it.

  • braveinternetguy - 2011-03-27 12:13

    Why am I not suprised to see the word "apartheid" appear 4 times in the article, expecially with "legacy" in the title. No, you numbskulls, during the apartheid years, things were done properly. The stupid, inept, corrupt, embarrassingly incapable ANC government has managed to accumulate a LOT of "legacies" that will haunt us for many, many years.

      Rajty - 2011-03-28 12:44

      Ja right you are so stupid it belies don't know the histrory of SA and that is plainly sad. Don't vote- you don't deserve the right to moron.

  • mjvandersandt - 2011-03-28 10:27

    Our white children inhereted BEE and reverse racism, the ANC inhereted toxic mined dumps. Sounds like you get what you bargained for? Blame it on apartheid and it will go away.

      Rajty - 2011-03-28 12:45

      No thats where you are wrong- we inherited the legacy of aprtheid- go taeke your white kids to see the townships and then you'll understand it.

  • boxer1266 - 2011-03-28 12:45

    Let the mine bosses who made so much money pay for the clean-up and let them pay for all those who are now suffering as a result of their greed! They made enough money from exploiting the natural resources that should have been given to the people of this country and now they want to shy away from paying for cleaning up their mess?!!! They better do it and better do it quickly if they know what's good for them. I hope they are watching the news in countries where people are fed up with dictators and greedy leaders exploiting the natural resources belonging to the people?!

  • mkuze - 2011-03-28 18:16

    julius malamela wants to take 60 percent of jci, give him the job to clean up the mess.

  • Marcell - 2011-03-29 01:47

    The state will do nutting. It will mean less for them to steal!

  • juisluk - 2011-03-29 11:23

    more evidence of how whites are ruining africa all u ppl care about is exploiting africa and africans to feed ur insatiable greed it does not matter who gets hurt as long as they are not white! U dont even care that u r ruining the environment as long as the racists get richer and who cares about the uneducated africans? well they may be uneducated but at least they dont intentionally hurt the environment.

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