Briefing journalists at Parliament following last week’s Cabinet meeting, he said the executive had examined recommendations by a team of experts on how to deal with the threat of so-called acid mine drainage.
The report is to be made public on Thursday.
“As a government, we want to give all South Africans the assurance that this matter is receiving attention, that the science is exceptionally good on this matter, and that there is actually no cause for panic about it. I want to repeat that: There is no cause for panic about it.”
Speaking via video link from Pretoria, senior water affairs official Marius Keet reported on the levels of acid mine water in the three distinct geological basins that underlie the region.
He said that in the eastern basin — located roughly below the town of Nigel — there was currently no risk because the water was 700m below the surface.
Western basin the ‘big challenge’
There were also no immediate problems with the central basin, which is directly below Johannesburg.
“In the central basin, there are currently no challenges because the water is just below 500m below the surface.”
Keet said the big challenge was the western basin — below the Krugersdorp-Randfontein area — where acid mine water has been decanting since 2002.
“That is the first priority we will have to address,” he said.
Manuel said work on dealing with the problem in the western basin would start “immediately”.
Acting water affairs director general Trevor Balzer told the briefing that in terms of the central basin — where water is reportedly rising at a rate of between 0,6m and 0,9m a day, depending on rainfall — it was essential to have pump stations operational by March next year.
“We would need to make sure we have new pump stations operational by March 2012 … this is very feasible.
“By [this date] we should have the pump stations established and be able to move water out of the basin,” he said.
In the past, water affairs officials have voiced concern about the lead time needed to put pumps in place before the rising water in the central basin breaches what they call the “environmentally critical” level of 150m below surface.
Manuel said he had been impressed with the calm and controlled tone of the scientists who had compiled the report, and told journalists that once they had read it themselves, they would be reassured.
“You’ll throw away your gumboots and relax,” he joked.
On the costs of putting pumps, pipelines and treatment works in place to deal with what has been labelled South Africa’s biggest-ever environmental threat, he said Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan would reveal these in his 2011 2012 Budget, to be delivered on Wednesday.
Further, government would be looking to recover costs from the mining sector itself.
“We will try and reclaim maximally from the profit-making mines that which we can reclaim, and understand that we have a collective responsibility to ensure the safety of water systems, riverine systems, flood plains, etc, so that South Africans can know this matter is being dealt with.”
Further work needed
Manuel said talks with the mining industry were “ongoing”.
Government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi told the briefing earlier that Cabinet was investigating an environmental levy.
“Cabinet agreed that further work needs to be done to investigate the possibility of an environmental levy for consideration by Cabinet,” he said.
Acid mine water, which has roughly the same acidity as strong vinegar, is a legacy of 120 years of gold mining on the Witwatersrand.
Acid water is formed underground when old shafts and tunnels fill up. The water oxidises with the sulphide mineral iron pyrite, better known as fool’s gold. The water then fills the mine and starts decanting into the environment, in the process known as acid mine drainage. — Sapa