Acid Crisis Keep Flowing


by Sheree Bega

Sizwe Mkhize looks visibly irritated as a group of journalists ask him about South Africa’s water crisis.  “I think that’s just hearsay”, he responds, tartly.  “We’re a dry country but we’re not in a crisis whatsoever.  You have water coming out of the taps in your house, don’t you?

For Dr. Mkhize, a senior official at the Department of Water and Forestry, the fragile condition of the country’s water resources appears difficult to deflect amid persistent warnings from leading researchers about our polluted rivers and dams, collapsing water infrastructure and dysfunctional sewage works.

And their desperate cries can’t be ignored, says Gareth Morgan, the DA’s shadow minister of water and environmental affairs, who believes Mkhize would “find it extremely hard to look into his own heart and admit there is not a water crisis.”

“It’s really an example of a senior official not taking responsibility”, says Morgan.  “The crisis is a water management crisis.  In the first instance, it can be put firmly at the door of the Department of Water and the hundreds of municipal managers running wastewater treatment plants not in compliance with minim standards.  Many are expelling untreated effluent into our rivers.

“The department is not prepared to enforce the Water Act and is very reluctant to prosecute municipal managers running sub-standard sewage treatment plants.  The lack of water engineers and technical skills in the department is woeful.”

Although the country’s drinking water is generally of an acceptable standard, growing pollution means costs are likely to soar:  “the cost of treating our bulk water is going up because of deteriorating water quality from the effects of acid mine drainage (AMD), agricultural runoff and industrial pollution,” he adds.

Globally, acid drainage has been cited as posing environmental risks second only to climate change.

This acid mine water refers to a deadly cocktail of toxic chemicals, including heavy metals and radioactive uranium, as well as high levels of sulphates, leaking from disused mine workings into dolomitic areas underground, infiltrating ground water and overflowing to the surface into water sources.

Acid drainage decreases water quality, poisons food crops, and poses several health risks, including increased rates of cancer; decreased brain function and skin lesions.

Its impacts are manifesting on the flooded Western Basin, where Mkhize was addressing journalists near an old ventilation shaft in Randfontein, last week.

Here, millions of litres of acid drainage has been gushing for more than two months into the already poisoned Tweelopies Spruit, passing through the Krugersdorp Game Reserve and ultimately reaching the Limpopo and Vaal river systems.

Mkhize accompanied Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Buyelwa Sonjica, who announced an emergency R6.9 million state subsidy to increase the pumping and treatment capacity of Rand Uranium and Mintails’ water treatment plants before the toxic tide enters the Tweelopies Spruit.

On her visit, Sonjica said acid drainage was a “ticking time bomb” and referred to it as “triple A priority” that her department was working hard at solving.  But a week before her visit, in response to a parliamentary question from Morgan, she claimed that no one’s drinking water or farming activities on the West Rand were affected by the polluted water, which drew outrage.

And Morgan notes the disconnect.  “The lack of attention by her department and predecessors is putting us in the situation where we’re now forced to make short-term interventions,” he says.

The latest decant of acid drainage on the West Rand is poisonous terrain that environmental activist Mariette Liefferink knows well.  Since it started in January, propelled by heavy downpours, the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment has led media, academics and scientists to the site.

Acid drainage first started bubbling to the surface nearby through a disused mineshaft in 2002, on land now owned by Rand Uranium.  The government ordered mining groups DRD Gold, Rand Uranium and MIntails to halt the surface flow of this acidic water by pumping it out and treating it before discharging it into nearby streams and rivers.

But in the past year, DRD Gold stopped pumping its share, while Rand Uranium has had to battle the volumes single-handedly.

Until now, the acid drainage has been only partially treated and been discharged in an “unacceptable quality into the Tweelopies Spruit, causing serious downstream pollution of boreholes, while an unqualified volume of untreated acid drainage is flowing the Zwartkrans compartment, which hosts the Cradle of Humankind”, says Liefferink, a former missionary-turned-lawyer and environmental champion.

Sonjica’s pledge is a “band aid”, she says.  “ It’s at least is heartening to know she (Sonjica) visited the area, but it’s very disheartening to know the situation s continuing as it was.  In 2002, the same aspirational statements were made and nothing has happened.

“She’s going to donate R7m to have more volumes of water treated with lime.  That’s what they’ve been doing since 2005.  Rand Uranium is already spending R2.5m a month on pumping and treating the water”, she points out, calling for a regular state subsidy and the immediate implementation of reverse osmosis plants to treat the water.

“This process has been ongoing for eight years and there is nothing new to it – except that it remains ineffective but gives all parties concerned some cover to hide the true facts”.

The mines’ treatment technology cannot remove the high salt loads in the water.  “The so-called current treatment is merely to add lime and limestone to raise the pH of the water.  This has the effect of precipitating out most of the heavy metals but the sulphate levels of the water that are discharged into the river system remain unacceptably high.

“The sulphate levels sterilize everything it comes into contact with and destroys the resource on which the rest of the downstream economy is dependent,” says Liefferink.  She worries, too, about how the acid water is eating away at the dolomite below ground.

Mkhize, though, dismisses her fears.  “For as long as you have a problem underground and for as long as that the problem is not affecting the environment, particularly that which you can see with the naked eye, it is something that is there but is not affecting anybody.

“The acid going into the river system is what we want to stop.  You cannot drain all the voids underground because some go down 5km.

“I don’t think we know that the Cradle of Humankind is being affected.  These voids are not connected.  That’s why we ‘re saying whatever is coming out of the surface needs to be addressed.”

But Lifferink terms this as “wishful thinking”, explaining that the acid drainage is continuously seeping into aquifers used for drinking and irrigation.

“There are 2 654ha under irrigation using borehole water in the (Zwartkrans) compartment into which the subsurface seepage is continuously occurring and 458ha under irrigation using river water.  Much of these products are sold to Gauteng as food.  More than 11 000 (people) make use of the groundwater.”

In 2006, the pollution plume was already recorded in boreholes well beyond the Sterkfontein Caves along the Blaauwbankspruit valley, she notes.  “There is a very real danger to the Cradle and the N14 due to the effect on acid drainage on the dolomites.”

But the acid problem is not restricted to the Western Basin, the smallest of the Witwatersrand’s four mining basins.  Experts have warned that in less than three years, acid mine water will begin to flow uncontrollably out of the Central Basin, below Joburg, and in 18 months polluted water in that basin will reach critical levels, affecting the structural integrity of the CBD.

The government is pinning its hopes on the recently announced creation of a public-private partnership between itself and mines to tackle acid drainage in the entire Witwatersrand Basin.  Suggestions are that the acid drainage from all the basins will be centralized into one treatment plant, and possibly, once treated, it will be pumped into the Crocodile River for use by Eskom and Sasol.

Scientist Mike Whitcutt refers to the minister’s emergency R6.9m fund plan as “serving the same function as confetti at a wedding.”

“The minister and her advisers simply don’t know what to do.

“The public usually only wakes up when the symptoms of pollution start spilling over into the other areas of concern such as health, nature conservation, and quality of life in general…Public environmental concerns invariably focus on the symptoms rather than the causes, which explains the political response of sweeping things under the carpet.  What you don’t see can’t hurt you.

“South Africa’s future is limited by surface water availability, but we have abundant groundwater and it is crazy to use this reserve as a sump for pollutants.”

In a recent paper, Judith Taylor of  Earthlife Africa Joburg, who has mooted the idea of taking bottled acid drainage water to Parliament to “ask them to replace their water with it and see if it is a crisis or not”, questions whether acid drainage is the “end of life in Gauteng”, especially for the poor.

“What is happening affects the poorest of the poor the worst.  It does not let the rest of us off either.  Kagiso, which is a township where thousands of people live, is in the midst of this as well, and is also affected by the pollution.

“Our food resources are compromised; our drinking water is threatened.  Water sport at Hartbeespoort and Robinson dams has been suspended.  The Vaal River is threatened.

“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.”

Mkhize and his department were due to meet with mining operators yesterday to discuss the long-term plan to tackle acid drainage.  “The bigger plan we are developing will take us into the next decades.  The problem here was  caused by the guy who was mining yesterday.  That’s why we as the government are focusing on managing the problem rather than taking each other to court.  Who do you shout at?  The guys who are non-existent?”

But Liefferink no longer buys the argument of a historical legacy.  “The minister claimed this is a historical legacy and it would be unfair to burden the current mining operations with the costs.  It’s not true.  The mines involved have either been involved for a very long time, like DRD Gold, or have purchased the mineral rights.

“It should be further noted that mining activities are still continuing and more liabilities are created every day.  There is no historical legacy, only a current liability.”

Liefferink says it’s “unpalatable” to expect current and future generations to pay for the treatment of water to safeguard the profits of a few current mine owners.

“Former mine owners made billions and depleted resources.  They left us with all aquifers polluted with acid drainage.  That is most immoral.”

Liefferink and her federation are pressing ahead with legal action against the National Nuclear Regulator, the Department of Minerals and Energy, the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and Department of Water and Forestry, for the acid drainage crisis, which the government has been warned about since 1996.

“The time has come to force the government to act decisively and for the mining industry to understand they are liable for their pollution for as long as the pollution continues.  For 14 years they did nothing of consequence.”

Anthony Turton comments on the article:

This is one of the most balanced story’s I have read on the topic.

An error is noted on the groundwater volume.

SA has a total use-able groundwater resource of 10 Bcm in non-drought years. Compared to the national resource found in rivers (49 McM), this groundwater fraction is not large. Which is all the more reason we need to protect is given that most of the groundwater is found in the dolomites, some of which are affected by AMD.

Naturalized mean annual run-off (MAR) (i.e. all the water in all the rivers in the country) = 49,210 Mcm (or 49 Bcm to make it easier).

The Utilizeable Groundwater Exploitation Potential (UGEP) (all the water in aquifers across the country that can be potentially exploited) = 10,350 Mcm (or 10 Bcm) in a non-drought year; and around 7,500 Mcm (or 7.5 Bcm) in a drought year.

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