Johannesburg farms at risk from tailings dams

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

Tailings Dams are holding millions of tonnes of dangerous metals and leading to severe damage to farms in the Johannesburg area.

Gold mines constitute the largest single source of waste and pollution in South Africa

That’s according to Mariette Liefferink, from the Federation for a Sustainable Environment who showed Business Day around the West Rand and outlined some of the major environmental challenges.

Liefferink says acid mine drainage is exacerbating the problem, because it dissolves the heavy metals and precipitated them in water sources and wetlands, where people grow crops and abstract water.

She says the Lancaster dam in Krugersdorp, which is surrounded by tailings dams, is the source of the Wonderfonteinspruit.

The stream is now filled with acid mine water and its wetlands had been classified as the radiological hotspot by the by the Nuclear Regulator.

“Lancaster dam historically was indeed the source of the most pristine water. It was classified by a 1934 German documentary as one of the seven wonders of South Africa. Today as you can see it is filled with acid water. The Lancaster dam is filled with water of a PH of about 2, 6. It is similar to lemon juice. There is absolutely no life,” she added.

“It is as a result of 120 years of mining and obviously very poor management of wastes from the gold mines. The gold mines generate the most cost of the socio-economic impact and also ecological impact. The gold mines generate 47% of the mineral wastes.”

“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,” Liefferink said.

Next to the Lancaster dam is a brick manufacturing company which is manufacturing bricks made from tailings. Liefferink says the use of tailings to manufacture bricks or any construction material is inappropriate.

She said: “The department of minerals resources have done radiometric surveys within the central, East Rand to the West Rand and found it showed elevated levels of radioactivity as a result of the usage of tailings for construction materials. Bricks are being manufactured with tailings that contain radioactive and toxic heavy metals.”

BDFM Online also visited the Tudor Informal Settlement in Krugersdorp which is erected on land contaminated by mining activities. It is also surrounded by radioactive dumps and tailings dams.

Liefferink says the residents of the squatter camp are exposed to high concentrations of cobalt, zinc, arsenic, and cadmium, all known carcinogens, as well as high levels of radioactive uranium.

She says the informal settlement was built on toxic and radioactive waste mine dumps.

“Those shacks house people that are poor. The houses do not have concrete foundations. People are exposed to radioactivity. The people unfortunately do not have alternative accommodation.”

David Ncwane a resident in the area and who stays in a one room shack says he was aware that the place where he lives was not safe. Ncwane says there was no where he could go because he was still waiting for an RDP house.

Ncwane has a small vegetable garden next to his shack that Liefferink thinks the crops are not healthy for human consumption.

“The people, regrettably, are ill informed and uninformed because the heavy metals accumulate in his crops,” She warned

But Ncwane thinks his crops are safe to eat and says the soil lacks fertilizers. “They take a long time to grow.”

Just outside Krugersdorp is the multimillion rand Amberfield luxury Old Age home which Liefferink says it was built within the 500 m buffer zone of the tailings dam.

She said: “The developer here built a luxury old age home. It was funded by Standard Bank. They didn’t do a basic assessment or a risk assessment. According to the chamber of mines regulations there can be no residential development within a 500 m buffer zone of the tailings dam. It was built on a shallow underground mine land. There had already been three shafts that had collapsed in the area.”

“The whole housing development had cost hundreds of millions of rands. It is now desolate. There is no one staying here.”

Source: Business Day

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