Gauteng sitting on an acid-mine time bomb

2011-02-26 15:28

Gauteng’s acid mine drainage ­problem is not a catastrophe, ­according to Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel.

But the report of the team of ­experts appointed to advise the ­interministerial committee warns of the need to avert “impending ­crises”.

In the report on acid mine drainage in the Witwatersrand, which was published this week, 27 risk categories are identified: Three categories received a very high risk rating, 13 a high risk rating and six a moderate to high rating.

These categories range from the contamination of surface and ground water required for agricultural and human consumption, to earth tremors and damage to foundations and basements in the Johannesburg central business district.

The experts were drawn from the Council for Geoscience, the Department of Water Affairs and Mineral Resources, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Mintek, the Water Research ­Commission and universities.

They identified the western, ­central and eastern mining basins around Johannesburg as “priority areas requiring immediate action”.

The report says that sizeable quantities of acid mine water from the western basin have been flowing untreated into the environment ­after mines closed down years ago.

In the central basin, the largest, the acid water level had been rising at a daily average of 0.59m since July 2009, said the report.

It was estimated it would reach the surface by March 2013.

By this time the water will have “sterilised” still exploitable gold reserves, flooded underground tourist facilities at Gold Reef City and compromised a dolomitic groundwater resource east of Joburg.

Warning that tremors in the region may increase, the report points out that a monitoring programme has picked up increased seismic activity in the basin since the ERPM mine ceased pumping in October.

The situation in the eastern basin, says the report, is “complicated” ­because of uncertainty regarding the Grootvlei mine pumps.

If pumping is stopped because of the mine’s financial difficulties, the pump station will be flooded within 30 days and acid mine water will decant “in or close to the CBD of Nigel on the East Rand”.

The environment had already been “a casualty of the situation” after the release of raw mine water into the Blesbok Spruit and a wetland.

The report recommends that:

» Water be pumped from the three basins to below the relevant environmentally critical levels;

» Steps be implemented to reduce the inflow of water into the underground workings;

» Water pumped out of the basins be treated because it will not be of suitable quality for productive use or discharge into river systems;

» The monitoring of mine water, ground water and surface water, among others, be improved; and

» That the feasibility of ­imposing an environmental levy on operating mines be studied.

In an interview with City Press on Friday, water and environmental ­affairs minister Edna Molewa disclosed that the government was looking at ways to make acid mining water polluters pay for their sins.

“We have got to find a way to ensure that the principle of polluter pays becomes a reality,” she said.

According to the budget, R225 million will be allocated in the financial years 2011/12 and 2012/13 to “design and build an acid mine water treatment facility in the Vaal water management area”, R5 million of which will be spent on a five-year plan to deal with acid mine drainage.

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