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Seepage from abandoned mercury pit raises concerns

Posted by: Saving Water SA (Cape Town, South Africa) – partnered with Water Rhapsody conservation systems – 12 April 2010

Taxpayers are facing a R40-million clean-up bill to eliminate pollution from a toxic waste dump near Durban which contains high levels of mercury, a dangerous heavy metal which damages the brain and other parts of the body.

Mercury was used by the SADF to prevent canvas from rotting

The poison was dumped in several pits in the Hammarsdale area more than 30 years ago. It is thought to have originated from a former Tongaat-Hulett subsidiary company, Hebox Textiles, which used to dip South African Defence Force military tents in a mercury-based fungicide to prevent the canvas from rotting.

The unfenced and unrehabilitated dump was exposed in The Mercury newspaper earlier this year following concern that mercury might still be seeping into surrounding groundwater and rivers.

The Department of Water Affairs gave the assurance two months ago that the pits posed no threat to water, but it refused to release the results of previous water monitoring tests in the area.
Water Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica said on Sunday that further water tests were done last month and these also suggested there was no threat to rivers and groundwater.

Sonjica was responding to written queries from Democratic Alliance MP Gareth Morgan, who visited the abandoned mercury pits earlier this year and took photographs of cattle eating grass directly above the contaminated pits.

Sonjica confirmed that sludges from Hebox Textiles and other companies in the Hammarsdale industrial area had been dumped into several ponds in Hammarsdale between 1970 and 1980.

The Mercury has seen a report prepared by Umgeni Water in 1994 which showed that mercury levels in the pits “greatly exceeded” South African guidelines for disposal of mercury in soil.

Though Umgeni concluded that groundwater pollution from the unlined sludge ponds was not likely to pollute groundwater, it suggested that the government should be cautious about managing the site in future.

According to Sonjica, water samples were collected from several places around the waste dump in October, 2004. These showed no mercury pollution in the nearby Sterkspruit River, which suggested that the Shongweni Dam was also not polluted by the dump.

More recently, Sonjica said ground and surface water samples were taken on March 11 and these also showed “no impact on the water resources”. Morgan said on Sunday he would request copies of the test results.

Sonjica said her department met officials of the eThekwini municipality and KZN Department of Environmental Affairs five years ago to discuss a rehabilitation and remediation plan for the dump.

But the clean-up never started because of “budgetary constraints” in her department, and latest estimates showed it would now cost between R30-million and R40-million to rehabilitate the site.

“Funding is currently being mobilised for this,” she said in her letter to Morgan.

In the interim, further warning signs had been erected near the site in English and Zulu, and a procurement process had started to erect a fence around the site at a cost of about R1-million. Earlier this year, a spokesperson for the Tongaat-Hulett group said Hebox Textiles had been sold in 1991.

On the issue of mercury sludges and who should be held responsible for clean-up costs, Tongaat-Hulett said at the time: “We have not been able to verify, in the short time available, the possible use of mercury and its disposal at Hebox Textiles. We will be commencing an internal investigation.”

– Tony Carnie
Source: iol

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