Farmers fear for their lives and livelihoods in toxic area
If she doesn’t move, Susanna Smit could be dead in three months. That’s the price the 65 year old could pay for living much of her life in the shadow of one of the deepest underground gold mines in the world.
“My doctor told me my lungs look like a man who has worked underground in the mines for 30 years”, says the out-of breath Smit of the progressive lung disease that first started shrinking her lungs five years ago. “But I’ve never worked on a mine. I’ve never smoked a day in my life and neither has my husband.”
She struggles to her feet in her neat farmhouse which lies half a kilometer from South Deep mine, operated by Gold Fields, in Westonaria, south west of Johannesburg.
Smit holds two X-rays in her hands. One shows her shriveled lungs, the other a healthier set of lungs – but not hers. “My doctor gave me this person’s X-ray to compare my lungs with. You can see this person’s are sponge, but mine are hard and full of spiderwebs.”
She blames her illness on the clouds of toxic dust carried from the towering mine dumps by the merest whisper of wind into her house.
“It must be the dust I breathe in all the time because if I visit my children in the Free State, I feel better within two days and have more energy. As soon as I come back, I’m sick again.”
Suddenly, her conversation is interrupted by a hoarse coughing fit that seizes her body and brings tears to her eyes.
“Every day I deteriorate. I can’t breathe. I’m tired all the time. I was a busy lady before, I was healthy. I milked the cows for my husband.
“Now I’m on cortisone and antibiotics for the rest of my bloody life. The doctor told me if I don’t leave here in three months, I will be dead.”
Local doctors, reveals her husband, Martin, didn’t want to link his wife’s illness to the dust fallout.
“We’ve been to several doctors – the doctors are scared of the mines and don’t want to take them on. Among the farmers, nobody has money to take the mines on and they know it.”
But the couple’s new doctor, based in Krugersdorp, writes that Smit’s clinical picture is “definitely aggravated by the nearby mine dump and the secondary dust cloud” surrounding the smallholding where she lives.
“X-rays can’t lie”, interjects Martin, a dairy farmer. “Everyone who lives around here is so sick. How come are the cancer rates so high? I don’t think the mines know how they’ve destroyed our lives.”
He points to the clouds of whit dust filling the sky , as his For Sale sign flutters forlornly nearby.
“Look at how the dust hangs – it’s everywhere. But the mine says this isn’t their dust and that it comes from Randfontein.
“Even when the wind is not blowing, there’s still dust coming from the mine dumps”.
Bottled water is stacked in the kitchen. Like their neighbours, they no longer trust the water coming from their borehole.
“We’ve had lots of problems with our animals such as abortions and deformities. But we can’t afford to buy them bottled water too and they drink the borehole water.”
Petrus and Lillian Pienaar moved to the area three years ago to be closer to the Smits – their lifelong friends. Their house has been on the market for more than half of that time.
“No one wants to buy here”, says Lillian. “They see the mine dumps and they’re not interested.”
The Pienaars are suspicious of the mine’s analysis of their borehole, choosing instead to fork out the money from their diminishing pension for independent water tests by the University of Cape Town. These recommend the couple don’t drink this water because it shows signs of contamination.
The Smits and Pienaars tell how they have to replace their geyser elements every three to six months because the acidic mine water corrodes them.
Last week, they were among a group of local framers that gathered at their local library, citing the alleged impacts of mining on their health, their livestock and the agricultural potential of their increasingly tainted land.
Some have now vowed to take on the mines.
In their arsenal is Mariette Liefferink, the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, an outspoken environmentalist, who has drawn Parliament’s attention to the poisonous legacy of mining of the Witwatersrand goldfields over the past century.
Within the heavily mined Wonderfonteinspruit catchment area, flowing between Randfontein and Potchefstroom, heavy metals and radioactive pollutants persist.
Several studies, commissioned both by the mines and the government, have shown the Leeuwspruit, which runs through Westonaria to the Vaal, is contaminated.
Liefferink repeates her call for an epidemiological study to quantify the health risks of mining in the Witwatersrand, but that is a call likely to go unanswered.
As the region’s mines have closed or been abandoned, they have left a toxic tide of acidic – and potentially radioactive – mine water to rise to the surface, contaminating waterways.
In Westonaria and its surrounds, a similar dirty picture unfolds. “There is significant toxic and radioactive dust fallout from the South Deep Mine,” says Liefferink. “They built the tailings dam on the fountains, you can imagine the impact on the groundwater.
“The anecdotal evidence of cancers in the Leeuwspruit area is overwhelming. But the burden I s now on affected communities to prove there is a link with the mining waste, and, of course, it’s impossible.
“Those people that buy property where there are already existing tailings dams make an informed choice. But people who have lived there for many years had the mines encroach upon them”.
And farmers here have a new battle on their hands – two mega mine tailings facilities, or “superdumps” proposed by Rand Uranium and Gold Fields in their vicinity, which would result in the deposit of one billion tons of uraniferous tailings.
The firms stress these facilities, if approved, will employ techniques to stop groundwater and dust pollution but residents like Susan Esterhuizen are angry at the prospect.
She lives down the road from Smit, and like her, she suffers from progressive lung disease.
At night I can’t breathe and I think it’s the dust that is making me sick. Our houses are covered in dust. The doctors keep telling me to stop smoking but I never have.
“A lot of the people around here have cancer and are sick. I want us all to come together and fight the pollution. But I would never want to leave my farm because we love our farm.”
Another growing concern is the potential contamination of crops that are then sold on to consumers, says Liefferink.
“There are large tracts of orchards in this area that bear fruit that is either sold to market or exported.
“The farmers claim the dust from the tailings dams deposit on their fruit and this is of concern.”
Esterhuizen’s neighbour, Neels van Wyk, who runs the family farm, says that on windy days, a blanket of dust from the mine dumps obscures the sky and “you can’t see in front of you.”
“That dust sits on our peaches and vegetables. People come from all over for our peaches including Natal. We sell to hawkers that sell to Soweto and Sebokeng.
“But the peaches don’t grow like they should anymore. The dust kills the peaches. We sell spinach and pumpkins too and don’t know if that’s contaminated. We don’t know if our water is contaminated either.”
A year ago, his mother Willa, 69 contracted leukaemia, which she believes is mining related. “The mines can’t make what they’ve done right”, she says. “All our land is already so contaminated.”
Her son sees hope in engagement with companies like Gold Fields.
“We must try speaking to the mines. They don’t know yet about our concerns about the water and dust pollution.”
But more and more, he is also worried by what he encounters on his farm.”
He indicates several trees on his property on which tumour-like growths protrude like boils, the mummified corpse of a mouse he discovered in the house, its spine deformed, and he points out a rooster with a deformed spine.
“I was also born with a deformed spine. I don’t know if these things are because of mining.
“Everywhere the water goes it must be contaminated.”
A 2007 report commissioned by Gold Fields, conducted by African Environmental Development, showed evidence of mining contamination on the nearby farm of Piet Rheeder. It highlighted how radioactive mining waste had accumulated in the Leeuwspruit catchment upstream of his farm. His wife died from cancer of the bowel.
“Gold Fields have done tests in his dam and found it to be highly contaminated with uranium. Its sediment is so contaminated it can be profitably mined,” says Liefferink.
“His pigs aborted and his chickens had livers the size of a hand. His crops did not wish to grow.”
Sven Lunsche, Gold Fields spokesman, says while mining clearly does have an impact on water quality, it only acquired the mine in 2007, inheriting “significant environmental legacy issues”.
“We have focused on getting the environmental performance to the level at which our other mines operates – namely within regulated limits as determined by our previous water permits and current water use licences.
“Our policy is to investigate all allegations to determine whether our discharges cause harm, but we have, as yet, not come across evidence that South Deep is solely responsible for emissions that have damaged the health of humans or animals in the area”.
Liefferink says mining companies in the area have already bought out large tracts of farming land.
Lunsche says it has engaged with many farmers in the area “solely to find out what the perceptions are within the community” and it is not on a crusade to buy farms.
“Buying farms in cases where there is evidence of pollution is not regarded as being a desirable solution as we prefer to solve the issues and to continue supporting the farming community.”
But Noel van Nieuwenhuizen and his wife Jenny maintain the community won’t stand for more pollution and will fight the propse super dumps – or they want to be bought out.
Over 4 000 of their peach trees have died in recent years, as their tomato and chilli plantations have withered away. They blame their borehole water, which is so corrosive it eats through their water pipes. “In the long run they will murder my family for the sake of money”, says Van Niewenhuizen.
“Must we prove this pollution with autopsies on our family?”
Jenny adds: “Our sheep don’t even carry full term. Some are deformed and premature.”
Nearby horse breeder Rene Laubscher, tells of how he recently lost his wife to cancer. His daughter is in remission from Hodgkins Lymphoma.
“I don’t know what’s in the water. But these things don’t kill you overnight, it accumulates. I still maintain we must get together and test the water before the super dumps come.”
A few kilometers away, Smit tells how she often thinks of her neighbour who also had lung disease. “The mine bought his place and nine months later he died.
“I can’t sit around waiting to die like Mr. Erasmus.”