Acid mine water flows into wetland

Posted by: Saving Water SA (Cape Town, South Africa) – partnered with Water Rhapsody conservation systems – 08 February 2010

Source: Earthlife Africa Jhb

Acid mine water is pouring out of an old mine shaft on the West Rand, near Randfontein. The water is untreated and contains toxic heavy metals, including radioactive uranium. It flows down hill into a wetland area, to join the Tweelopiespruit which eventually flows into the Crocodile River. There is a strong smell of hydrogen sulphide – a toxic gas that can be very dangerous at high concentrations.

Acid mine water overflowing from an old mine shaft on the Black Reef Incline, near Rand Uranium's treatment pond, 30 January 2010.

Some ELA Jhb members visited the area on 30 January 2010. In response, a member wrote the article below about the environmental crisis on the West Rand.

Acid Mine Drainage – is this the end of life in Gauteng?

Judith Taylor, A member of Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce Water Commission and EarthLife Africa Johannesburg

“What does this mean?  Simply this – a deadly cocktail of chemicals has become part of the water leaking from mine shafts into our dolomitic (vulnerable rock formations that are very soft and easily degraded) areas.  This cocktail includes various sulphates, and metals such as lead, magnesium, cadmium, bismuth, and radioactive uranium, strontium (one of uranium’s progeny) and radium which decays into radon, radon gas, polonium, and thorium.

In the Witwatersrand, the dolomite is being eaten away by this water, which is in the “basins” or void, under the Witwatersrand Ridge.  Already, it is decanting or leaking into our ground water and many people have been seriously affected by this.  Some farms have been so badly affected that they are no longer operative.

Not only our water, but our food security is threatened, as the pollutants in the soil and water get into food crops.

Recent rains have led to the most recent overflow of acid mine water on the West Rand (mid-January 2010).

What is the extent of the problem?

The leakage of polluted water into the Witwatersrand basins comes, not just from the mine workings, but also from the mine dumps and tailings dams.  The dumps are themselves sources of health hazards.  Some contain radioactive uranium. The tiny uranium particles are inhaled. The smallest particles can damage the lungs. Larger particles may be swallowed and damage other organs.  Over time, (it may take up to 40 years), it can cause serious health problems, such as cancer

When you go to the former gold fields near Krugersdorp, as I did on Saturday 30 January 2010, you see rolling fields of green.  Yes, there are many mine dumps and tailings dams around, but the area looks vibrant and innocent.  Only, on closer inspection, do you become aware of the lack of bird life; the strange colour of the water in the dams; the pervasive smell of sulphur in the air in some places.  If you look closely, you may see that some trees are dying (possibly because of acid mine drainage (AMD)).  In addition,  farming land is neglected and there is evidence of some farms having been abandoned.  A once active aquatic recreation centre – Robinson Dam – is now empty and abandoned.

The Robinson Dam has 40 000 times more uranium in it than the natural uranium levels for the area and is well outside the allowable limit.  This is not very friendly to anything, as shown by the complete lack of life in the dam.

And yet RDP housing has been built on this polluted land; sulphate deposits are on the side of the roads.  The white sulphate crusts contain 1000 to a million times higher uranium levels than background levels of uranium; plus the polluted mine water is accessible to everyone.  Take a Geiger counter here and hear the crackle of radioactivity: 36 radiological hotspots have been identified within the West and Far West Rand gold fields by the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR), requiring urgent intervention. Lancaster Dam is a Category 1 site – the highest priority area.  Feel a burning sensation from the polluted water affecting your feet, if your shoes let in the water, as did many visitors on Saturday.  Some even developed rashes.

The water is highly acidic – pH2.6 to 3.2

A development, called Amberfield, intended for retirees, lies abandoned.  It is within 500m of a mine dump, on land contaminated by radioactive dust.  There is already one large shaft that has collapsed on the property.

Kagiso, which is a township where thousands of people live, is in the midst of this as well, also affected by the pollution.  Vegetables, grown in the wetlands adjacent to the tailings dams, are also likely to be affected and should not be eaten.  The main contaminants are zinc, arsenic, cobalt, copper, cadmium and uranium.

Lead causes brain damage and possibly raises aggression.  This might be a contributing factor to the high incidence of violent crime in the region, as much as drugs may be.  The incidence of armed robberies with the victims being beaten and/or killed in Gauteng is very high.  The other heavy metal pollutants are suspected to give rise to mentally impaired babies.  In all, there is a risk that the pollutant load impairs reasoning skills in adults as well.

This is what is happening in the worst affected areas to date.  The University of the North West is working with affected communities to determine the extent of the pollution and its affects.  These communities have only recently had their problems taken seriously, even though the farmers have known that they have had a problem since the 1960s.

To give an example, even steel pipes are eaten away in months by the highly acidic water.  This means that geysers, pumps and piping are destroyed regularly and require replacing.

Ah – but we’re not in Krugersdorp, so why worry?

For starters, it is not just Krugersdorp that is affected.  Farms on the Wonderfonteinspruit, the Tweelopiesspruit and the Leeuwspruit, are also affected. Very soon, Potchefstroom, which relies on the Wonderfonteinspruit for water, will not have potable water – unless the municipality can treat it.  Already, the uranium levels, in the Wonderfonteinspruit from where the water reaches them, are very high.

Now the Western Basin is decanting (overflowing), after our exceptional rains in January 2010, into the Cradle of Humankind.  This had acid mine water (AMD) in its groundwater already and now the load is increasing.  South Africa is in imminent danger of losing a World Heritage site as a result of this pollution.

Acid mine drainage will affect the vegetable crops being grown around Tarlton, where Johannesburg sources its food.  Many of the areas that are under irrigation are irrigated with borehole water (some of the boreholes already have the same chemical composition as AMD), stream and river water.

The AMD from the Western Basin, goes, via the Wonderfontein spruit (to the South of the ridge) and its tributaries, to the Vaal River.  It also goes down the other previously mentioned spruits: the Tweelopies flows into the Crocodile and then into the Hartebeespoort Dam (to the north).

The latest overflow of acid mine water, in January 2010, which is a new decant, will reach the Crocodile River as well, going into the Hartebeespoort Dam and then further affect the agriculture below the dam wall.  The decant takes place on an intercontinental divide.  To the south is the Wonderfonteinspruit which is part of the Vaal River System.  To the north is the Tweelopiespruit, which is part of the Limpopo Catchment.

It does not stop there, as the Crocodile River continues through to the Indian Ocean, taking this pollution, and the sewerage pollution from the damaged water treatment works of the Madibeng Municipality, plus Pelindaba’s waste water, to all the communities on the way.

What is happening affects the poorest of the poor the worst.  It does not let the rest of us off either.  Our food resources are compromised; our drinking water is threatened.  Water sports at Hartebeespoort and Robinson Dams have been suspended.  The Vaal River is threatened.  Already, the latter has the lowest population of Fish Eagles in South Africa, as their chicks die of heavy metal poisoning.

When, not if, the other basins start decanting, we will have a situation where all our rivers are toxic; our groundwater will be unusable; we will not be able to grow food and we will have major health problems.

Is this where we want to be?

Well, given that the government is promoting mining, it would seem so.  The regulation of new mining permits and operations is sadly lacking.  Many new mines are operating without water licences and without having completed EIA procedures.  The communities, who have been invaded by these mining concessionaries, are already experiencing lack of water and loss of land to grow food.

Where to from here?

As South Africans, we have some choices.  One is very simple – roll over and die!

Since 1994, we have chosen to expect the government to provide.  Based on results: non-working water treatment plants;  the pollution flowing into our rivers, it has not been able to do so.

From being vocal activists, we have become sheep, herded here and there, waiting for the government to solve our problems.  Unfortunately, like many sheep, we are being led to the slaughter house of our own lack of action; confronting a long slow and painful death, if we do not act now!

The invasion of the acid mine drainage water into our water sources has to be addressed right now and vigorously.  There is no simple solution to the problem; just as there is no simple solution to the problem with the sewerage works.

Our lives depend on this action being taken.  So do the lives of our children and grandchildren – it will affect everyone, rich and poor; old and young; of every hue.

Water is life – do you want to live enough to take on this challenge and change things for the better?

Would you like this to be the water you drink?  Because this is acid mine drainage water in all its glory!

What Action can We take?

As civilians and members of the community, we can make sure that we do not pollute our rivers by throwing out our rubbish into the streets.  We can recycle and reuse.

We can report sewer bursts, water bursts and similar problems.

We can keep our councillors informed of problems in our communities and find out if Public Private Partnerships are possible.  We can make these happen.

Most of all, we can take back our initiative and create working communities, that are concerned about raising the quality of our lives and the lives of those around us.

We can educate others around us in better ways of looking after our towns, our streets, our rivers and parks, so that we improve our immediate environments.

The time for being hand fed by a government, which is not resourced to do so, is gone – if it ever existed!

Unbuntu starts with you and me!  Let’s do it!”

Related articles: AMD emergency programme
Toxic minerals and acids at dangerous level

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