SA faces toxic mine water threat crisis

2010-10-28 09:28

For years Neels Van Wyk suspected something was wrong with the water on his farm, worries that grew as mining and government officials started frequenting the area to test nearby rivers.

Van Wyk (48) lives in Westonaria on the southwestern outskirts of Johannesburg, surrounded by four major mines which over the last 120 years extracted gold and uranium.

Most of the mines closed down 11 years ago, when pumping of underground water reserves also stopped.

Now researchers worry that toxic mine water is rising toward the surface and seeping into nearby water supplies, contaminating rivers with a cocktail of acidic and sometimes radioactive waste.

“My concern is that I use borehole water which could be contaminated. I sell peaches and vegetables to the hawkers and they sell it to the community. What if the vegetables are contaminated and we don’t know that,” Van Wyk says.

Activists fear that rising water levels in the mines have created an underground time bomb that could threaten the country’s nearby financial capital Johannesburg in 16 months.

The threats are massive: groundwater contamination, health risks, such as cancers and poisoned soils.

Mariette Liefferink who heads the Federation for a Sustainable Environment says: “The matter has to be addressed with great urgency.”

“Acid mine drainage is as corrosive as swimming pool acid but it also contains a cocktail of radioactive and toxic heavy metal.”

Toxic waters are now lurking just about half a kilometre in mined chambers below surface but rising by 30cm a day, even before the seasonal rains get under way, which could increase the rate threefold.

The government says the heavy metal-laced swill could hit the last safety buffer, an area stretching 150m below surface, by early 2012.

But it believes South Africans should not be panicking yet, with former finance minister Trevor Manuel dismissing fears that Johannesburg residents would be sloshing around the streets in gumboots as ridiculous.

Marius Keet, a senior regional water affairs official says: “It’s urgent but it’s not a crisis. And we’re not supposed to reach that stage – we have to do something before that.”

The state says it has a year to find a solution. A new ministerial committee produced a report in October, but has not released the findings.

In July, the water affairs department warned of catastrophic results if Johannesburg’s groundwater was contaminated or mines began decanting below the city centre.

“We will not allow that – it’s definitely not going to happen. It will not decant in the city of Johannesburg,” Keet told AFP.

Toxic mine water surfaced eight years ago just west of Johannesburg, and still flows out of the ground during heavy rains.

The run-off has poisoned soil, made a dam radioactive and wiped out life in affected waters, Liefferink says.

South Africa has 6?000 abandoned and derelict mines – many run by firms now out of business, leaving the state responsible for 70% of them.

But the government lacks the R1.5?billion needed for a 10-year rehabilitation plan.

Just one pump to remove the water costs R218?million, but the current budget for this is R14?million.

“Where the basins are flooding, there are no management plans in place. Where it has flooded in the western basin, it’s now just crisis management,” says Liefferink.

“What is lacking here is the political will and commitment to implement these plans and also to apportion liability.”

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