Coal miner closely monitoring environment after slurry spill

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The winding Umfolozi River.
The winding Umfolozi River.
Chris Galliers
  • Three weeks after a wastewater spill, Zululand Anthracite Colliery is complying with government directives to monitor the area for negative affects.
  • The impact of the spill on human health and the environment, if any, is yet to be determined. 
  • The company and government have separately launched probes into the cause of the spill.

Zululand Anthracite Colliery (ZAC) says it is complying with directives from regulatory authorities to monitor the potential negative impacts of a recent pollution spill.

On Christmas eve, following four days of heavy rain, the end wall of a newly-installed slurry dam failed, resulting in a pollution spill of 1 500 cubic metres of coal slurry which flowed into nearby land and rivers.

ZAC is located in the heart of rural Zululand and the mining right borders the Umfolozi River and the Hluhluwe Umfolozi game park. The impact of the spill is yet to be seen. ZAC’s slurry dams contain a variety of elements, including mercury, arsenic, copper, lead and manganese.

Msawenkosi Buthelezi, ZAC’s environmental superintendent, said the directives that have been received give specific actions to be performed, including several bio-monitoring actions which will "give a factual base as to the spill impact on the environment".

ZAC, which is owned by mining investment company Menar, said it had been operating in the area for 38 years and has well-established community forums through which it interacts with the surrounding communities. ZAC said traditional authorities were notified of the spillage within two hours of it occurring and community leaders have been briefed six times since the incident. The company said it believed community leaders to be "generally satisfied" with how it has handled the matter.

The mine employs 1100 people in the area. Labour for the clean-up is also sourced from the host communities, the company noted.

"There is awareness and the engagements with our host communities as well as regulatory authorities are ongoing," Buthelezi said. "We are transparent about the incident, ongoing investigations, remedial actions being implemented at ZAC’s initiative and expense as well as directives from our regulators."

The end wall of the slurry pond has been rebuilt and is awaiting a professional engineer certification before the pond is brought back into service. The integrity of the other slurry ponds containment walls will also be checked by a professional engineer and improvements will be made where necessary, the company said.  

ZAC said it would continue to monitor the groundwater and had also appointed an environmental consultancy has been appointed to monitor the surface and groundwater.

This follows on an instruction from the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs that ZAC extend its sampling to include the estuarine zone of Isimangaliso Wetland Park.

To assess possible damage caused to surrounding host communities, ZAC is engaging the relevant local community forums and structures to identify any such damage and discuss resolutions.

The company has also appointed an engineering firm to confirm the exact root cause of the failure of the dam wall. This investigation is currently in process.

The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs has meanwhile set up  a joint operations committee to probe the matter.

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