Andreas Späth

Why gold isn’t green

2010-10-13 07:04

Gold has made South Africa rich, right!? Well actually, gold mining has allowed an elite to accumulate incredible wealth on the backs of hundreds of thousands of poor black miners risking life and limb labouring under the most excruciating working conditions thousands of meters underground. To add to this, it is becoming increasingly evident that gold mining is having devastating environmental consequences - nothing short of an ecological disaster - for large parts of the Witwatersrand Basin.

The trouble is that the rocks which contain the gold also host constituents that are considerably more hazardous to the environment and human health. Locked up and widely dispersed deep underground, they are harmless, but having been exposed to mining and brought to the surface, they are wreaking havoc.

Take the sulphide minerals, particularly pyrite, aka fool’s gold, for example. When exposed to oxygen and water in mines and mine dumps, they oxidise and form sulphuric acid, giving rise to the acid mine drainage (AMD) which has made for ever more alarming headlines in recent times.

AMD carries elevated concentrations of toxic elements, including chromium, arsenic and cadmium, into the wider environment, polluting ground waters, streams and soils and poisoning aquatic ecosystems. In the West Rand, AMD has started to “decant” - you have to admire the euphemism of the term - from disused mine shafts and levels below central Johannesburg are reported to be rising at a rate of up to 0.9 metres a day. Like a menacing monster from the deep, AMD is encroaching on nature reserves and the Cradle of Humanity World Heritage Site, creating sink holes and threatening to swallow central Johannesburg whole. Stemming this acrid flood isn’t just extremely difficult, it’s also very expensive.

But it gets worse! Another nasty constituent unearthed by gold mining is uranium and its radioactive progeny. Uranium is carcinogenic, toxic to the kidneys, can cause radiological damage to DNA, bones and lymph nodes and may be a neurotoxin and weaken the immune system.

While some of the uranium has been sold as a lucrative by-product of gold, an estimated 600 000 tons have simply been dumped onto the more than 270 tailings dams in the region. From the dumps it’s finding its way into the surrounding environment - tens of tons of it every year. It gets leached out by water or spread around as windblown dust particles and ends up in streams, farm dams, on irrigated crops and in ground water.

The Wonderfonteinspruit, which runs through the West Rand past Randfontein, Kagiso, Westonaria, Carletonville and Khutsong, has achieved international notoriety as a radioactive stream containing sediments with uranium concentrations of as much as 1 000 times above natural background levels. Most at risk from uranium exposure are the thousands of poor people who live along its banks and in other contaminated sites throughout the Witwatersrand.

None of this is news, of course. In 2006 a report by the Water Research Commission, investigated the extent of uranium pollution in the West Rand, highlighting its environmental and health impacts and tasking the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) to come up with a regulatory response. The NNR claimed the report’s methodology was “inconsistent with international norms and standards” and commissioned its own independent assessment, which it promptly tried to suppress when it revealed that there was “no natural water in the whole [Wonderfonteinspruit] area that was safe for use by humans, animals or plants”. We’re still waiting for decisive action from the NNR, which is supposed to be the “independent statutory body mandated to protect persons, property and the environment from nuclear damage”.

The bottom line: more than 100 years of gold mining has left us with a legacy of massive environmental pollution and health hazards for decades to come. We need an environmental truth and reconciliation commission! A green TRC which will hold those responsible accountable, even if they have absconded, loot-in-hand, to more favourable financial environs like the London Stock Exchange. We have to rethink the true cost of cold, a substance that, besides a few uses in electronics, is valuable for being, well… shiny. A proper accounting of all of the damage it has done will show that all gold is fool’s gold.

- Andreas would like to thank the incomparable Mariette Liefferink for inspiration and valuable information in writing this column. He manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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