Acid water threatens Joburg

2010-07-21 21:52

Johannesburg - Millions of litres of highly acidic mine water is rising up under Johannesburg and, if left unchecked, could spill out into its streets some 18 months from now, Parliament's water affairs portfolio committee heard on Wednesday.

The acid water is currently about 600m below the city's surface, but is rising at a rate of between 0.6 and 0.9m a day, water affairs deputy director water quality management Marius Keet told MPs.

"(It) can have catastrophic consequences for the Johannesburg central business district if not stopped in time. A new pumping station and upgrades to the high-density sludge treatment works are urgently required to stop disaster," he warned.

Speaking at the briefing, activist Mariette Liefferink, from the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, said the rising mine water posed an "enormous threat", which would become worse if remedial actions were further delayed.

"This environmental problem is second (in SA) only to global warming in terms of its impact, and poses a serious risk to the Witwatersrand as a whole. At the rate it is rising, the basin (under Johannesburg) will be fully flooded in about 18 months."

Mine drainage

She said the rising mine water had the same acidity as vinegar or lemon juice, and was a legacy of 120 years of gold mining in the region.

Acid water is formed underground when old shafts and tunnels fill up. The water oxidises with the sulphide mineral iron pyrite, better known as fool's gold. The water then fills the mine and starts decanting into the environment, in a process known as acid mine drainage.

Keet said the problem was not just confined to Johannesburg, which is located atop one of several major mining "basins" in the Witwatersrand, known as the Central Basin.

In 2002, acid mine drainage had started decanting from the Western Basin, located below the Krugersdorp-Randfontein area. The outflow had grown worse earlier this year after heavy rains, prompting his department to intervene.

However, a lack of treatment capacity in the area "compelled in-stream treatment as a short-term intervention".

This intervention saw the department pouring tons of lime, an alkali, into the Tweelopies Spruit in an effort to neutralise the acid mine water. This had led to problems with the resulting sludge that had formed in the water course.

The region's Eastern Basin, below the town of Nigel, was also threatened. The last working mine still pumping out water in the area was Grootvlei. Keet said that if the mine stopped pumping, acid water would start decanting into the town "within two to three years".

Legal action

Water Affairs is currently taking legal action against the mine, after it allegedly failed to comply with a departmental directive to treat the pumped water before discharging it.

On stopping the growing threat below Johannesburg, Keet said about R220m was needed to establish pump stations, pipelines and treatment works. Responding to a question, he said there were plans to tackle the problem.

"The idea is to build a pump station; the challenge is where the money will come from," he said.

Liefferink said if the acid mine water rose to the surface in Johannesburg's CBD, it posed a threat to the city's inhabitants, its buildings and the surrounding environment.

She told MPs that residents of many of Gauteng's poorer communities were living alongside, and in some cases on top of, land contaminated by mining activities. They were exposed to high concentrations of cobalt, zinc, arsenic, and cadmium, all known carcinogens, as well as high levels of radioactive uranium.

"In some cases, RDP houses are being erected next to radioactive dumps," she told MPs, who expressed shock and concern at the news.

Liefferink said acid mine drainage was exacerbating the problem, because it dissolved the heavy metals and precipitated them in water sources and wetlands, where people grew crops and abstracted water.


She also warned that some of the heavily polluted streams drained into the Vaal River system, and posed a threat to the region's water supply.

Liefferink, who backed up her presentation with a series of photographs showing, among other things, shacks erected on top of an old mine tailings dump, received a round of applause from MPs.

Mining started on the Witwatersrand about 120 years ago. More than 43 000 tons of gold and 73 000 tons of uranium have been extracted from the region's mines.

According to Liefferink, this mining activity has left a legacy of about 400km² of mine tailings dams and about six billion tons of pyrite tailings containing low-grade uranium.

"Waste from gold mines constitutes the largest single source of waste and pollution in South Africa... Acid mine drainage may continue for many years after mines are closed and tailings dams decommissioned," she said.

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  • taxpayer - 2010-07-21 23:47

    A DISASTER already.Who will solve this problem?The Goverment? Not possible!!!

  • WTF - 2010-07-22 00:03

    DWAF has known about this problem since the mines themselves commissioned a report on ARD in 1998. Basically they've sat on their thumb ever since. (Just wait until the next ARD time-bomb goes off - Mpumalanga's coal mines, which are draining into a basin which supports some of the country's most productive agriculture.) Media, where are you on this story?

  • Mila - 2010-07-22 00:25

    And where will the acid water be pumped to ??

  • maustuff - 2010-07-22 02:31

    Acidic Water + Uranium = Lots of fun

  • Keith - 2010-07-22 03:22

    +/- R40bn spent for 4-weeks entertainment and we cannot find R220m to protect the country's largest city and how many lives ??????????? Perhaps SAFA should donate part of their SWC windfall?

  • gigajoules - 2010-07-22 04:21

    This problems (ARD and toxic metals) have been around many years but successive governments have simply turned a blind eye. The Dept of Water Affairs and Forestry and funding agencies such as the Water Research Commission are also to blame. As a young researcher at CSIR in the 90's I remember on a number of occasions being told by DWAF and WRC people that "SA does not have a heavy metal problem". Many of our funding applications were turned down based on that assessment by "the authorities".

  • Bert - 2010-07-22 05:47

    It's very simple where the money will come from, The mines of course. Oops I forgot many politicians and white collar scum have bulging shares in the mines. Does this mean they have to pay? I think not this bunch of ostriches!!

  • glug glug - 2010-07-22 06:40

    YES, and when this was discussed and debated ad-nausea by certain parties of mining persons it was pooh-poohed as a load of hogwash. My, how this has now come home to roost. Would be interesting to hear what our Dept of Mines has to say now??????

  • hendrik - 2010-07-22 07:31

    Start legal action against the big mining bosses, mostly British and American owned. They depleted South African soils of all the riches currently stock piled at the likes of “fort knox and London tower (sic)” Its time they pay up for environmental left-overs, we have to content with. And we don’t even have the riches of the 43 000 tons of gold to show for it. Even if it were done 120years ago, they have to fix it, not us, the poor tax payers. But wait, no recourse would ever be taken, because they are all part of the rocherschild conglomerate and part of the freemasonry governance. So be prepared that your tax money would be used to fund the disastrous left-overs from the riches of international owned mining companies or get used to the fact of acid flowing through the streets and the rivers, wet land etc be polluted even further…nationalisation would never come to the table, without a stake by international mining houses. Look at the bakwena family.

  • Peter - 2010-07-22 07:35

    We really to live under a false cloud called 'civilisation' which was created by our human 'higher intelligence.' I wonder what the 'dumb' animals (who don't create unnatural abominations that ruin the state of health of all living things) would have to say about this state of affairs?

  • Profit - 2010-07-22 07:43

    Looks like business got the profits and the people must pay as usual.

  • ant - 2010-07-22 07:48

    I watched an episode of 50/50 on sabc tv about this. The chance of it happeneing is 100%. The mine effeceting the area most is neglected and deserted except for one manager trying to control the water purification plant on the mine and the rising water problem. The owners of the mine who are related to our president, have let this problem get out of control by neglecting to rectify the problem that is creating the rising acidic water. The mine owners should be held responsible and fund the work to fix it.

  • Pebbles - 2010-07-22 07:52

    This articles is rather biased. We often seem to forget that although the acid mine drainage is a "legacy of 120 years of gold mining in the region", it is also the industry that built Johannesburg up to what it is today. And yes, Grootvlei did stop treating water, but how about explaining to readers why? That said, I do appreciate the gravity of the situation from an environmental perspective, and I really hope Dept of Water affairs can pull up their socks for once.

  • Steve - 2010-07-22 07:56

    Our greedy past catching up on us!

  • David - 2010-07-22 07:58

    Funny, billions of taxpayers money was available to build soccer stadiums for a once-off tournament, but there's no money for this life-threatening situation. Interesting sense of priority!

  • camelthief - 2010-07-22 08:04

    This has been known for some time, but no one is doing anything about it. The pollution of our water resources is a far worse threat to this country than ANYTHING else

  • ian - 2010-07-22 08:07

    cool, so nigel could become the new venice.

  • bemused - 2010-07-22 08:10

    This is the single most significant environmental problem faced by South Africa, and it only makes the news every now and then. After a few weeks the interest wanes and the public go on as usual. Government are hatching a variety of airy fairy plans to deal with "abstract" problems like global warming and carbon capture. And this wile we are literally standing with our feet in the muck. Yes... global warming is an issue, but to spend money on strategies en conferences while our water is becoming toxic is ridiculous

  • Ladnar - 2010-07-22 08:13

    If I had R220M, I would gladly pay for the infrastructure!

  • Libembe - 2010-07-22 08:14

    Complete absence of leadership and lack of urgency. We have been reading about the damage this water can cause for just over a year and we yet have to see anything concrete from the mining houses and government. Carltonville and Krugersdorp have already reported damages especially farmers whose livehood is in danger and township residence facing a bleak future on the West Rand. Where is the president, or do we have one?

  • James - 2010-07-22 08:15

    Pumping and water treatment of that pumped water is not the long term solution. Water is contaminated by it leaching out the 'bad' elements and does that when it flows through the ore body. The only long term solution will most likely lie in pumping shafts and old working dry and backfilling with surface dumps mixed with cement to stop easy flow of water. Water takes the path of least resistance.

  • Kgabo - 2010-07-22 08:16

    I think companies like Anglo American, Debeer, Anglo plutinum etc who have been mining in the country since the discocery of gold in Gauteng should be brought back to clean up their mess. They should not just be left alone.

  • Carl - 2010-07-22 08:30

    I'm surprised apartheid isnt being blamed...

  • LordWabbit - 2010-07-22 08:41

    The article does not mention that the reason only one pump is still working is that the others had their funding cut or were simply closed down because the person in charge did not understand the importance of pumping water out of an old mine. Also what they do not mention in the article is the sink holes etc. that are going to start occurring. Maybe when a sinkhole swallows an MP's house we will see some action taken.

  • wezza - 2010-07-22 08:50

    ask patrice he got the money + anc funded him in his ealry years so he made it time to give some back

  • Yazeed - 2010-07-22 08:54

    Yes, pump and treat is not necessarily the only way of managing the problem associated with AMD. I think one has to identify the major water ingress zones (i.e.evaporation dams, tailings facilities, abandoned shafts, and streams).Once these have been identifed we would have solved half the problem of mitigating the adverse effects of AMD on the environment.

  • Maiya - 2010-07-22 09:21

    It's the problem we enherited from our apartheid govt...we together now just have to find ways of dealing with it! And a long term sustainable solution will never come overnight but we need intermediate interventions!

  • AJSP - 2010-07-22 09:27

    South Africa should stand together and tackle this problem in much the same way we tackled the World Cup. With courage, determination and hard work. The mining industry has helped build this country by creating jobs, building roads and developing towns and cities that we now call home. We have all benefited either directly or indirectly and so are all to blame. Stop bitching about who's fault this is and just fix it. I for one would be prepared to pay a tax levy for something like this.

  • LaNgMaN - 2010-07-22 09:36

    Typical...SA gets confrunted with a potential disaster and all we can focus on now is the bloody olympics in 2020...wake up guys...18 months from now there will be no place for it...fix the pressing problems now and worry about the next future tourist flood later...

  • wanita - 2010-07-22 09:37

    They should use the SAFA money to sort this out

  • Environmental student - 2010-07-22 09:43

    I know that the WRC has been asked to fund a project to establish artificial wetlands in the area. Hopefully all this publicity will inspire them to fund such projects.

  • riaan - 2010-07-22 09:53

    pumping the water where? Surely this is treating the symptoms and not the problem. The mines should be 100% responsible, not the government However the Government should start legislation that Mines should deposit XXX Amount of money into an account which is responsible for any clean ups etc. Don't you just hate these guys upping 20 years later claiming bankrupsy and leaving us with the mess etc ? Mines suck.

  • Like never before - 2010-07-22 10:16

    If we think wars over commodoties such as oil are destructive and evil, wait until the wars over essentials, such as water, break out. If we carry on destroying our planet with the unregulated population expansion and commerce, these wars will occur during many of our lifetimes, but certainly our children's...

  • Jay - 2010-07-22 10:35

    Again - I have to say that it is good news to actually hear about this sort of thing. It means that our government is actually having to do something about it instead of ignore it. Well done to freedom of press!!!

  • MarkH - 2010-07-22 10:44

    This problem has been known about for a number of years now but all parties involved i.e. the mines themselves and government decided to ignore it because the cost of solving was deemed to be prohibitive.
    Now, as with most problems beginning to surface because of the exploding population and lack of maintenance and foresight, it's become the peoples problem.
    Just another example of how not to manage a country, its resources and its ultimate sustainability.

  • rbgguy - 2010-07-22 10:56

    Make the mining companys cough up!

  • Concerned - 2010-07-22 10:56

    it is very interesting really to wonder where the money could come from whereas we all know taxpayers always fork out the money anyway to do far less important things like paying for criminals and so on. so why not gvt not just pay for this life threatning disaster to come. If we could fund the World Cup so is this....i think it is simple as that.

  • Robert - 2010-07-22 10:59

    I work for a parastatal involved in the initial characterisation of the problem and I can tell you that the I have found studies on this problem dating back 30 years. The information exists, what is sorely lacking, is action. I agree with Riaan in that the mines are responsible, but it is also important to note that mining per se is not the porblem, but the manner in which it is done. Sustainable mining is possible and we do need the raw materials that mines provide. I also agree with Yazeed that although pump-and-treat should be implemented, it is a short term solution. This problem is going to be with us, literally, for the next few millennia. The answer lies in sustainable solutions, such as using the AMD to extract metals and perhaps generate power. Once again, many solutions have already been proposed by various parastatals, consultancies and NGO's. We need government to not just applause, but acknowledge that the problem, exists, is very serious, and needs immediate resources to tackle the problem. This problem effects us all and I believe it should be tackled in a concerted way.

  • Richard - 2010-07-22 11:35

    Just another story, of poor management to make us panick, and next we need a tender to pump the water and guess which brother will get the over priced contract to sort it out.

  • @ Hendrik (7:31 AM) - 2010-07-22 11:49

    And of course the Broederbond never profited from any mining activites and were never involved in any under-handed tatics nê...

  • Dion - 2010-07-22 11:55

    Gov has to fill the mines with all the C#$% lying around our City, There are so many Mine Dumps in the area , this has to go back into the mine . Also we dont have enough Dumping facilities around JHB why not use the Mines. FILL THEM UP!!!.

  • badru - 2010-07-22 11:57

    it's the exact same problem as BP's oil spill in america. the government forced BP to take responsiblity for that and that endanger mostly marine wildlife, whereas this situation endangers peoples lives. The government should take action before its too late, because i personally believe that since the media knows about this it's already too late.

  • Devin - 2010-07-22 11:58

    Fill the Mines with what came out of the mines , look around JHB and you will see an abundance of Mine waste, This should go back into the Mines, This will also create Jobs for all the Unemployed around JHB.

  • zane - 2010-07-22 12:18

    the gov/anc nows about these problems but have more urgent matters to attend to like parties, golfdays etc..and then all the funds needed to fix mess disappears into a sink hole "fraud and cooruption"

  • NO surprise - 2010-07-22 13:01

    Just like the gulf oil spil, this is south africa's major problem. Now we've known about this how long, but just like big industry and for the sake of greed, blind eye is turned to the after effects. how predictable. People only see money not the disasters afterwards. Now they go crying for help because they did nothing, now they won't money from taxpayers that would've cost much less in 1998 to repair than now. Wake up world! How much more of this planet has to suffer because humanity's greed takes the first place?! Seriously, wake up!

  • Roxy James - 2010-07-22 16:13

    If only we had our own Erin Brokovich here ... looks like Jo'burg will be able to blame many health problems on the mines too. So many comments submitted are worthy of noting. As my concerned fellow-readers have pointed out: they've known about it for years ... but only AFTER the World Cup does it come to light. Sickeningly scary story. All those metals in the water ... what the heck can we do?

  • Jennifer - 2010-07-22 17:23

    Pray, South Africa. Pray for leaders who can and will act for the good of all. Pray for a solution to this problem, and all the others. Pray for a nation that will turn back to God and start understanding the need for accountability in all levels of our society. Pray for us all.

  • Cire - 2010-07-22 18:45

    Divert funding from silly nonsense like "global warming" and spend it on a real problem like water. And cut the brainless left wing babble about 'greed' and 'raping' our resources.

  • The Eye - 2010-07-22 19:55

    It's becoming the trend worldwide - read elsewhere about the Jordan River(drying up and a health hazard. Is this just another sign of the end times?! The poor planet earth has been 'raped' by mankind!

  • barry - 2010-07-22 22:05

    Even if the R220M were immediately available to fund the solution to de acidify the acidic problem, we have the many corrupt pockets to line and the bureaucratic red tape and hog wash to wade through. Hmm 18 months from now will they be ready for the acid test? As usual the law abiding and tax paying citizen are the ones to would be wonderful if the rising acid water first finds its way into the homes of those who supposedly call themselves the goverment...