Water & environmental affairs minister Buyelwa Sonjica promised last week that a decision would be taken “shortly” to resolve the problem of rising levels of polluted mine water around the Witwatersrand basin.
But Sonjica’s undertaking, and her allocation of R6,9m for emergency measures to stop acid mine drainage in the western basin, is a “band aid approach”, say environmentalists and activists who have been stressing the urgency of the problem for many years.
In the past few months the issue has become even more pressing, with cash shortages affecting water pumping and treatment on East Rand mines, and high summer rainfall driving up water levels.
Prof Anthony Turton of the University of the Free State predicts toxic water will reach the surface in Johannesburg by January 2012 — or sooner if there is abnormal rain.
“What is being done now is not enough,” Mariette Liefferink of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment says. “We are bringing court action and preparing documents against the department of water affairs, as custodians, to enforce compliance with directives against the mining companies and to remedy the damage.”
“It is all talk and band aids,” says another environmentalist, who asks not to be named . “Throwing R7m at it and worrying about treatment plants is fiddling while Rome burns.”
Liefferink has been fighting this issue on the West Rand for about eight years, but says the first government report on mine water treatment dated back to the Jordaan Commission of 1960.
“We need to set a positive legal precedent on the West Rand because the same negative effects will be felt on the other water basins around Gauteng and eventually around the Mpumalanga coal fields,” she says. “We have exhausted all other avenues. We are not hostile to government but we think court action will provide the motivation.”
Government set up a task team of three relevant departments — water affairs, minerals and environment — in 2005 which established working groups to address the water problems in the western, central and eastern basins around the Witwatersrand.
The most decisive action so far has been taken on the western basin, where three companies — DRDGold, Rand Uranium and Mintails — have participated in the formation of the Western Utilities Corp (WUC).
WUC plans to use CSIR technology to treat the tainted water to a level suitable for industrial use and human consumption, at an estimated cost of R1,5bn .
Once it has completed its environmental impact assessment report, and secured the go-ahead from the Gauteng department of agriculture & rural development, it will take about 24 months before the plant is up and running.
But WUC might become involved in a broader solution for the central and eastern basins as well.
On Friday a meeting was held with government and the mining houses to hammer out the problem.
Water Affairs deputy director-general of policy & regulation Sizwe Mkhize says something more than a one-off solution is needed and it has to be a partnership. “You cannot ask everyone digging minerals to address the problem separately. That will create mishaps and gaps and require policing.”
Liefferink is also realistic, saying that if mining companies were forced to close, they would not “generate the funds needed to pay for environmental impacts. There needs to be a self-sustaining solution.” Expect it to affect consumers’ water bills.
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